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Officials hope to make schools even safer

Campus violence is down, and Florida is spending millions to cut it further.

Millions of Florida children return to school this month in a world their middle-aged parents never would have imagined: campuses with metal detectors, surveillance cameras, random weapons searches, school security officers and photo identification badges for students and staff.

It's all part of a battle against school crime that's about to intensify.

The Department of Education announced Tuesday that incidents of school violence are actually down in Florida. But the horror over a string of school shootings around the nation has spurred a flurry of public school safety initiatives.

This school year in Florida:

+ A new law will be in place that cracks down on students found with weapons. For example, kids with guns on school property can be immediately locked up and get stiffer punishments: The law recommends that they do community service in an emergency room that deals with trauma patients and gunshot wounds.

+ School districts will have $20-million extra to pour into school safety programs, a 40 percent increase that returns school safety funding to the level it had reached in 1995-96: $70.3-million. The money can be used for a variety of programs, from additional police officers and security equipment to more after-school programs or alternative programs that keep disruptive students out of classrooms where other children are behaving.

+ Administrators will be required to work harder to keep truant kids in school. Programs aimed at children at risk of dropping out will be expanded to children as young as first grade. And all school boards will be required to establish "character development" programs in elementary schools that instill qualities such as attentiveness, patience and initiative.

Top state officials outlined those initiatives and more as they gathered Tuesday to assure parents that Florida is doing all it can to keep public schools safe. The massive return to school has already begun, with more than 2.3-million students heading back to class this month.

Gov. Jeb Bush appealed to parents and students to do their share in promoting school discipline and safety. "The real work begins at the personal level," he said, urging parents to stay engaged in their children's lives.

Bush said the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in April was particularly troubling because of the "apparent disconnect" between the parents and children. The students plotted the violence that led to 15 deaths, even stockpiling weapons at home, apparently without their parents knowing.

In the aftermath of the violence, the state Senate has formed a Task Force on School Safety that is staging hearings around the state, and Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher is convening a statewide workday on safe schools today in Tampa that will focus on how to prevent incidents of violence and respond to them should they occur.

But Gallagher offered good news as well on Tuesday. Projections by the Department of Education show "violent acts against other persons" at school are down from 16,372 incidents in 1996-97 to 13,513 incidents in 1998-99. Weapons-related incidents have dropped from 4,743 to 3,672 in the same time. Incidents involving fighting and disorderly conduct have dropped as well.

Local school officials say the figures are the result of a variety of programs, such as school resource officers, who are law enforcement officers, in every middle and high school.

Hillsborough County last winter began a random metal detector program. Sixty-one searches were conducted with handheld metal detectors last school year. No guns were found, but 10 other weapons were discovered, including six pocketknives, said David Friedberg, the director of school security services for the district.

Students in Hillsborough can also call a toll-free number to report suspicious activity, remaining anonymous. Friedberg said he attributes the decrease in violent incidents at school to a changing attitude among students. Kids now feel they should come forward with information to help prevent crimes rather than keep silent.

"We're working with a lot of perceptions versus reality," Friedberg said. "The perceptions are that schools are not safe. The truth is, they are safer than almost any other place you can go."

Ray Gadd, who supervises student services in Pasco County, said national statistics he has seen show that the percentage of kids who get involved in school violence actually hasn't risen since about 1980. "We've got loads of good kids out there," he said. "Don't assume that because kids get shot over there that all kids are bad."

Pasco wants to increase the number of school resource officers over the next year and extend the school day at an alternative school for disruptive school students. It already has a Saturday program for unruly kids.

In Pinellas, a 26-member task force on safe schools has just recommended a variety of programs, including putting surveillance cameras in schools that request them and increasing the number of schools where students wear identification badges. The badges help school officials keep track of strangers on campus.