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Hotline could help curb school violence

The safety line is for callers to alert officials to drugs, weapons and impending violence.

In each case of school violence that has horrified the nation, a student somewhere has known about the carnage to come.

That's why local schools and law enforcement agencies are establishing a new School Safety Hotline in Hernando County, officials announced Thursday. In hopes that another shooting like the one at Columbine High School can be prevented, the hotline will enable students, parents and anyone with concerns about crime in schools to report their suspicions anonymously.

"If anything has come out of this school violence, it's that we all need to work together," Hernando County Sheriff Tom Mylander said. "This will help students protect their own schools."

People are still urged to call 911 in emergencies, and officials still want students to talk to the school resource officers who visit their campuses. But in cases when someone feels as though he or she can't speak to an officer directly, the hotline will be there, officials said.

"This gives us another vehicle for students and families to use," school Superintendent John Sanders said. "Many are very reluctant to come forward because of their allegiance to friends."

Hernando County is the 22nd county in the state to adopt the new hotline, which can be reached at (877) 723-2728. The hotline will be answered by trained personnel who will take down information and forward it to local law enforcement. It is funded by a $100,000 legislative grant to the Florida Sheriffs Task Force, which oversees the project.

School officials said they have put up banners and posters and will distribute wallet-size calling cards so students are aware of the new hotline. Although some have reservations that students might use the line for pranks, administrators say they are stressing that all reports should be accurate and timely.

"The difficulty will be determining that which is true and that which is someone just jerking our chain," Sanders said. "But we think the benefit will outweigh the costs."

Detective Beverly Norcum, project coordinator with the state sheriffs task force, said other counties have seen tremendous benefit from the system, which was first instituted as a pilot program in Pinellas and Duval counties in April 1999.

Many of the hotline's callers are parents phoning in information passed to them through their sons and daughters, she said. Still more are students who overhear conversations about drugs and weapons on the school bus.

"Just this morning, they arrested a seventh-grader for bringing marijuana into his school in Polk County," Norcum said. "(Another time) we got a report of a fight at a certain location at a certain time. So we sent officers . . . and they didn't fight."

Hernando's hotline has been up for two weeks, and its promotion began last week. Officials say they have yet to receive tips but anticipate more calls as people learn of the hotline's existence.

Norcum said when students become assured that the line truly is anonymous, they will be more willing to volunteer information.

"They still have the fear that someone is going to know " if they call in, she said, stressing that calls to the hotline cannot be traced. "I tell them, I don't care who the caller is, I just want to know the information _ about the guns, the drugs, the violence."