1. Archive

Ideas offered for safer schools

(ran ET edition of TAMPA & STATE)

A task force gives the School Board 40 suggestions on how to prevent and handle crises at public schools.

A mock shooting, hostage situation or chemical spill would be staged twice each year at every school.

All middle and high school students would wear computerized identification badges to help identify strangers on campus.

And a new safety director would be put in charge of all efforts at local schools to prevent massacres like the one at Columbine High School from happening here.

All are among the top recommendations of a task force, organized this spring at the request of the School Board, to make Pinellas schools as safe as possible. It will be up to the board to decide which of the 40 recommendations to endorse, how to pay for them and when they will start showing up on campuses.

"It's not a question of can we afford this," said board member Tom Todd. "We can't afford not to do this."

Some of the recommendations, such as hiring a safety director, will carry price tags.

Those costs will be determined at an upcoming workshop, when the board directs the task force to develop specific proposals for the recommendations it wants to pursue. That workshop has not been scheduled.

The 26-member task force, which met twice in May and June, included St. Petersburg police chief Goliath Davis, representatives of Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, a school architect, principals, teachers and parents.

Among the 40 recommendations, the group voted to highlight 10.

The safety director, for instance, would coordinate the distinct groups that patrol Pinellas campuses, from the district's own police force to school resource officers who report to various law enforcement agencies.

The director would also supervise mandatory training for administrators and teachers who may have never received formal training in handling crisis situations.

The emergency drills would be designed with the help of administrators at each school and would be different from campus to campus.

For example, a school near an industrial plant may stage a mock chemical spill, said Lt. Skip Cutting, commander of the youth education and services division of the Sheriff's Office and a task force member.

At eight Pinellas high schools, students already wear identification badges that help administrators keep track of strangers on campus. The task force wants to see students at more schools wearing those badges.

Other key recommendations are to put surveillance cameras in schools that request them, to identify one staff member at each school to coordinate safety efforts and to use security experts to analyze each campus for ways to make it safer.

That might mean putting a fence around a school or planting large bushes that block access from an adjoining neighborhood. It could mean making sure that teachers can lock their classroom doors from the inside, in case someone began shooting in the halls. Or it could mean eliminating drop ceilings where weapons could be hidden in the empty space.

To pay for the initiatives, board member Todd suggested spending some of the technology money the district receives from the state, which is usually spent on computers and teacher training.

Ron Stone, a spokesman for the district, said there may be state money for safety improvements left over from last school year's budget.

Already, Superintendent Howard Hinesley has recommended spending $250,000 to hire eight additional school resource officers. The other half of their salaries would be paid by the Sheriff's Office.

Linda Lerner, another board member, said she will ask Hinesley if he could find up to $100,000 in the 1999-2000 budget to pay for task force recommendations that the board ultimately approves.

"I think it's a real important issue, but I couldn't begin to say which of these needs to begin immediately," Lerner said.

The task force concluded that various programs and agencies are working to make campuses safer. But the group's mission was to find the holes in those programs and ways to fill them.

"Everybody has a plan, but unfortunately, we can get lazy and let those emergency plans sit on the shelf," Cutting said. "What we're doing is taking our emergency plans and putting them into action and making sure they work.

"It's not a panacea, but it might mean we can deal better with (a crisis) or it might mean we can prevent it."