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Educators, officers compare notes on school safety

Published Sep. 29, 2005

From the meetings come plans to conduct mock drills and prepare better site plans for schools in the event of another school shooting.

Months after the horrific shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School, the commissioner of Florida's Department of Law Enforcement surveyed police chiefs around the state to see how prepared they are for a crisis in a local school.

He found that local police and sheriffs feel they are "somewhat" prepared for an incident of school violence, but many haven't conducted any drills with schools and do not have a formalized plan.

"I'm encouraged because many do have plans and many are prepared, but I'm also concerned," said FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore, speaking of the survey of 80 law enforcement agencies around the state. "Some don't have formal agreements with school districts. They need to work together more. We're not as ready as we need to be."

Moore joined Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Attorney General Bob Butterworth on Wednesday, along with 400 school officials and law enforcement officials, at a school safety workday in Tampa. The workshop, at a time when most school districts are beginning the new school year, was designed to bring police and educators together to take the next step in preparing for violence.

"At this point, everybody has a plan," Gallagher said. "But how well is it coordinated with law enforcement? How often have they practiced that plan? Who's going to be in charge? We need to answer those questions."

The workshop came a day after Gov. Jeb Bush announced the state would spend an additional $20-million for school safety programs. The money comes at a time when school violence actually is decreasing. But after deadly school shootings and copycat scares dominated headlines at the end of last school year, the subject of school violence still is at the top of the agenda for educators and law enforcement.

"It's good to get cops and educators together," said David Friedberg, director of security for the Hillsborough County schools. "Sometimes they look at things differently. We need to work together."

Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder, who attended Wednesday's conference, said he wants more communication and cooperation with the School District. He said he sent a letter to the district shortly after the shootings in Littleton, Colo., but has not received a formal response. Friedberg, who sat near Holder at the conference, said he expects Hillsborough schools will join local law enforcement for some disaster drills to test their plans in the coming months.

Pinellas school officials were joined by representatives of the St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Clearwater police departments, as well as the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.

Joe Feraca, chief of campus police for Pinellas, spoke with Lt. M.J. Sahr of the Clearwater Police Department during the conference about doing joint drills and site visits during the school year. Feraca said he expects to get updated site plans for each school from principals this week.

"We've had good communication," Feraca said. "But you have to keep working at it." As an example he pointed out that Sahr's department will need a new site plan for Clearwater High School, which is undergoing major renovation.

Gallagher summed up the workshop by recalling some themes that emerged from Columbine and other scenes of deadly school shootings.

"The leaders of those schools and communities all had plans they thought were adequate," Gallagher said. But after the shootings, school officials there said, "I never thought it would happen here. I wish we had been better prepared."