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Schools gearing up to prevent violence

The county SWAT team and school officials are working to keep students safe with steps like mapping schools and installing video cameras.

When the shooting started on April 20, few people in Hernando County probably had ever heard of Littleton, Colo., or Columbine High School.

Nearly four months later, with a new school year set to begin Wednesday, the aftermath of what happened at Columbine High seems to dominate the landscape.

Considering the rash of bomb scares, threats of violence and general turmoil that engulfed schools in Hernando _ and around the country _ during the final weeks of the 1998-99 school year, that's easy to understand.

While students have been away for the summer:

+ Hernando County's SWAT team has acquired site maps and floor schemes for every school in the county. Not only that, but the SWAT team has been doing walk-throughs in schools to gain familiarity with the lay of the land, just in case there is a Columbine-type "event."

+ Plans have been accelerated to install video cameras in every middle school and high school. By the end of the year, 11 cameras per school, running seven days a week and 24 hours a day, will document almost every move on campus. It should cost $12,000 per school.

+ A new homicide assessment form has been added to the manual for school guidance counselors. It will be used to evaluate any student who makes a threat of violence. Counselors will ask the students about their access to weapons, their intended method of attack and questions to gauge whether they have been preoccupied with death.

And that's just the half of it.

Other moves _ some produced after Columbine, some in the pipeline even before the massacre _ are geared to make Hernando County's schools safer by reaching troubled students before they can cause a tragedy.

+ School counselors have been given a list of the characteristics that were common to the students responsible for violent outbursts in places that are now famous datelines _ Jonesboro, Paducah and Littleton. As a result, they will pay special attention to, among others, the socially withdrawn, the rejected and the isolated.

+ A full-scale, in-school ad campaign will be launched to combat the time-honored tradition of bullying. Investigators believe the Columbine shootings may have been partly a result of the badgering inflicted upon students who eventually sought their revenge. Students will be reminded that bullying can get them suspended or sent to an alternative school.

"We want a safe environment for everyone," said Jim Knight, the district's student services director. "These are things that probably have contributed to why kids have done some of the things they have done."

+ A toll-free phone line will be installed by October and staffed around the clock as a clearinghouse for tips about overheard threats and knowledge of impending trouble. It will cost $10,000 a year. But, as Barry Crowley, the district's coordinator of safety, said, "If you save one life, that's nothing."

That the Columbine High shootings have gotten people's attention around the school district is undisputed. In the past, there were always a couple of principals who felt they didn't need to listen to the district's sermons on violence, Crowley said.

They felt they knew their parents, students and staff well enough to rule out any potential problems. But not anymore. "The hard facts now are that it can happen anywhere, to anyone," Crowley said.

And schools are responding in a variety of ways.

This spring, West Hernando Middle School began giving every student lessons on how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Principal Ken Pritz said the instruction, which is made part of health classes, will continue again this year.

Springstead High School principal Dot Dodge will push students to get involved in extracurricular school activities _ whatever the club, team or organization _ as a way to get them plugged into school.

The bonus, Dodge says, is that adults who are club sponsors can learn a little bit more about the students than what a teacher can pick up in class.

At Powell Middle School, principal Cy Wingrove hopes to involve even more students this year in the Powell Crime Watch. Students equipped with two-way radios and yellow jackets monitor the hallways during class changes and report problems to the school's on-campus sheriff's deputy.

But the program is about more than monitoring the halls. Powell officials often seek out troubled or disengaged students to put on the crime watch team. They've found that when kids are given responsibility and something to belong to, their perspective improves.

Meanwhile, a program developed at Parrott Middle School, aimed at kids who have been in their first fight or who have exhibited other violent behaviors for the first time, will be expanded and opened up to students from all middle and high schools.

The program confronts students with the laws of the land and the rules of school. Often, says Janice Smith, the program's founder and the district's safe and drug-free schools director, that is contrary to the value system these students hold.

"Some people see (violence) as a means of survival," Smith said.

At Parrott, more than 150 children have run through the program, Smith said. Only five have caused trouble again. And none of them have needed a subsequent referral to the district's alternative program.

Aside from video cameras, other new security measures should become evident to school visitors in the months ahead.

Signs will be posted at every campus announcing that any car on the premises can be subject to a search. And if, as was the case this spring, rumors of violence are flooding a school, officials may search each and every car that appears on campus.

Anybody who doesn't submit to the search will have to leave, according to Crowley.

Photo ID cards _ trimmed in bold colors suited to each building in the school system _ will be distributed to district employees to make it easier to identify the adults who belong on a school's campus.

And, those IDs are expected to be extended to students _ at least on the high school level. One benefit that Crowley anticipates with the new IDs is that the photos will be shot with a digital camera. That means each picture can be kept in an electronic file. If, for any reason, police needed a photo of a particular student, it would be available at the touch of a few buttons.

Certain security features will be unique to particular schools.

Pending School Board approval, Hernando High School's wide open campus will finally be fenced in _ something that students there began calling for the day after the Columbine shootings. It would cost $44,000.

Springstead High will post an assistant principal outside during the day to monitor the school's perimeter and to lock up the student parking lots during class to keep out people who don't belong. Visitors will have to park in front and come through the school's highly visible front door.

The district's newest school, Chocachatti Elementary, was designed to be a virtual fortress against intruders. It has roll-down metal gates that block every exterior entrance to the school. Like Parrott and West Hernando middle schools, it has a courtyard design that shields most student movement from public view.

In the event of a fire, Chocachatti students and staff can escape through a one-way panic door next to the gate. But for outsiders, the only way into the school will be through the principal's office.

For adults who went to school in eras when school violence was limited to the occasional fight, some of the measures the district is taking may seem extreme. But they don't go as far as they might.

School district officials, for example, have ruled out metal detectors as an option. Crowley said they are costly and easily circumvented. How much trouble would it be, Crowley asked, for a student to toss a gun over a fence and onto a school's campus, walk freely through metal detectors and then retrieve the weapon?

Crowley said he has read some school safety literature _ from some usually reputable sources _ that actually recommends arming schoolteachers.

During the course of an interview last week with the Times, Crowley answered a call from a salesman who wanted to sell the district weapons for school staff.

Crowley thanked the salesman for his call, but told him the Hernando County School District wasn't interested.

Yet, to an extent, weapons are already present on school campuses. The district's four middle schools and three high schools have full-time deputies who carry guns.

And, despite the nationwide hysteria about school safety, it is precisely the presence of armed deputies, nurses and trained counselors in schools that has Crowley convinced that parents need not worry. "Our schools are safer than most of the places their kids go," he said.

Since Columbine, students and parents have joined the fight to make local schools safer.

Within a month of the shootings, two West Hernando Middle School students _ Megan Johnson and Kristen Mendoza _ formed Students Against Violence Everywhere. They hope to get chapters up and running in every school.

SAVE would promote peaceful ways for students to resolve their differences and encourage kids to tell an adult if they see or hear something about a potential threat in school. To that end, the district will show every student from fifth grade up a video called Break the Code of Silence: Save a Life! about a student whose death in a campus shooting might have been prevented.

At the same time, members of the Hernando County Parent-Teacher Association are starting a group they hope will encourage parents to take a stronger role in stopping violence before it starts.

Despite this great national spasm, people who are on the front lines of the battle to protect children worry that what's being done is not enough.

Janice Smith, the safe and drug-free schools director for the district, said Hernando County's schools need even stronger violence intervention programs. Money seems to be the key, but it is only starting to follow the outcry.

The state, for instance, announced last week that it would spend $20-million on safety programs. Yet, at the same time, federal funding for the safe and drug-free schools program is about to dry up.

Two school guidance counselors _ Diane England of Suncoast Elementary and Rolando Herrera of Powell Middle _ say what the schools are doing to address problem students is good, but perhaps not good enough.

They contend that too much of a counselor's time is spent putting out fires, leaving too little time to search for potential sparks.

"We are more crisis oriented rather than intervention oriented," England said.

Added Herrera: "I spend 80 percent of my time on 20 percent of the students."

The only answer, both agree, is to put more counselors in the schools. As it stands now, the child who causes a problem gets attention. But those who walk around quietly fuming might not be found until it's too late.

"It concerns us all," Herrera said.