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School safety topic of summit

No one can guarantee your child's safety at school. But Citrus law enforcement and school officials do everything in their power to keep harm at bay - even when children themselves are the threat.

That was the message to parents during a summit on school safety Monday night.

Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Purinton, who helps oversee the school resource officer program, shared safety tips and fielded questions from a dozen or so parents who attended the forum at the District Services Center in Inverness.

Spurred by the recent school shootings in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the local PTA organized the summit to discuss how Citrus schools would respond in a similar crisis.

The conversation touched on a range of issues from the lax security at some elementary school campuses to the threat of sex offenders - some of them parents - coming on campus undetected.

But no issue seemed to give parents more pause than the concern of children doing harm to other children, as well as law enforcement's response.

Since 2003, the Sheriff's Office has taken 56 students to a mental health facility pursuant to the state's Baker Act. Last year alone, there were 26 students who were involuntarily taken for psychiatric evaluation.

Purinton called the trend "alarming" but said the action is necessary to prevent suicidal children from doing harm to others in school.

It was unclear from his remarks whether the trend reflects an increase in unruly students or a shift in the Sheriff's Office's approach to dealing with such students.

Purinton also warned parents about the dangers of prescription drugs, which he said have become the most popular controlled substance among students besides alcohol and marijuana.

Since 2002, 44 students have been caught with a controlled substance at school.

Students caught with prescription drugs like Xanax usually get them from their grandparents' medicine cabinet, Purinton said, noting that Citrus is home to the largest population of retirees.

Once children raid the medicine cabinet, Purinton said, they will use the drugs themselves and risk becoming dependent on them or they will sell them to their peers at school.

The announcement startled several parents in the audience, including one who said, "I have never thought about prescription drugs. I trust my daughter."

The woman's reaction prompted some laughter and also a warning from Purinton, who said parents shouldn't be "so naive and trusting" or try to mimic the behavior of parents in television shows who think they need to become their child's best friend.

"Sometimes we have to check our children's room and drawers," he said. "Just to double check."

For the most part, Purinton added, children in Citrus schools are well behaved but there are the few times when they slip and make mistakes.

Some parents in the crowd gasped when Purinton said that parents of children as young as 8 are increasingly turning to school deputies for help.

" 'Help,' " they say, according to Purinton. " 'I don't know how to deal with my child.' "

Purinton and other school officials told parents that children are the best line of defense against the threat of school violence.

"Encourage your children to report (suspicious activity), even if they tattletale," he said.

Some parents wanted to know what the schools were doing to keep intruders out.

Dawn Corlew said she's concerned about the safety of her two daughters who attend Hernando Elementary School. The school, like Citrus Springs Elementary and Pleasant Grove Elementary, has an office inside the campus, allowing visitors to bypass security if they choose.

"I'm worried about the people who don't belong there because before they can get to the front office, they can get to six classrooms sooner," Corlew said.

Mike Mullen, executive director of support services, said the district is getting estimates and looking at the best ways to seal the entrances at those schools. The same concern has been raised at Citrus High School and Inverness Middle School.

Mullen was cautious not to give parents a false sense of security.

"Just because you have to go through the front office doesn't mean you'll stop an armed intruder," he said. "It's only a secretary sitting at the front desk with a phone."

Annette Miller had a separate concern about registered sex offenders who are allowed to come on campus because they have a child enrolled at the school.

"I was appalled that they're allowed on campus," said the mother of a 6-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son who attend Forest Ridge Elementary.

Miller's concern put other parents on edge.

"Who's watching that person?" asked Joy Ely, whose son attends Inverness Primary School. "We don't have knowledge of these people?"

Mullen said unless the parent checks in at the front desk, the administration won't know.

Superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel closed the summit by extolling the schools' tight working relationship with the Sheriff's Office.

"I want you to go home and know that school safety is our number one priority," she said.

She echoed the advice of other school officials: Keeping children safe in schools is the responsibility of everyone, educators parents and students.

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.

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