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How do you explain active shooters to a first-grader? For educators, school safety is a 'work in progress.'

Active shooter drills like this one in 2013 at Osceola Middle in Pinellas County have since been expanded to be more frequent and to include students in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. But some educators say they are trying to find a balance between scaring students and giving them information that could save them during an attack. [Times (2013)]
Active shooter drills like this one in 2013 at Osceola Middle in Pinellas County have since been expanded to be more frequent and to include students in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. But some educators say they are trying to find a balance between scaring students and giving them information that could save them during an attack. [Times (2013)]
Published Sep. 21, 2018

Active assailant. Run-hide-fight. Barricade the classroom.

The language of preventing a shooting like the one this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is often filled with terms that can stir up fear in students, often out of necessity.

But four weeks into the first school year since the tragedy, some educators in the Tampa Bay area are looking for better ways to prepare for the worst while making the task less frightening.

While school officials in Hillsborough and Pasco counties have kept security protocols largely the same since classes started last month, their colleagues in Pinellas and Hernando are tweaking the instructions teachers will use during Florida's new state-mandated training drills, particularly when it comes to younger students.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

Soon, according to deputy superintendent Clint Herbic, all teachers in Pinellas will get direction from the district about how to present safety information to students according to grade level and what children in those age groups can intellectually and emotionally process.

The material is compiled into two colorful forms — one with guidelines for students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, the other for sixth- through 12th-graders. It's a collection of information from the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers and Safe and Sound Schools, an initiative founded by parents whose children died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.

"These are good people who have been through the worst," said Dennis Russo, the head of school safety in Pinellas. "Their life mission is to help us come up with good practices here."

The form for primary grade levels instructs teachers to begin explaining safety procedures by telling students that "adults at school work hard to keep school safe."

They are encouraged to use the word "safety" when describing evacuation drills, rather than "active assailant," which is the term the state used in describing the trainings when they became law after the Parkland shooting.

Pinellas also will start referring to the evacuation process as "options-based training" instead of "run-hide-fight," the commonly taught strategy that urges people faced with an active shooter to run as the first option, hide as the next-best response and be prepared to fight the attacker if it comes to that.

"We won't be talking to kids about run-hide-fight; we're going to be talking to them about options, " Herbic said. "It doesn't really change the basic fundamentals, but it does reinforce the idea that you have options beyond just locking yourself in a room."

Russo said he hopes small changes like that will go a long way toward "not adding anxiety" to school culture.

"We're learning as we're going," he said, adding that some adjustments have stemmed from feedback and concerns the district has received from parents, teachers, principals and community members.

Last month, for example, the district decided not to show active shooter training videos in elementary schools after some said the footage wasn't suitable for younger students.

Elementary teachers in Hernando will soon receive a script developed by Jill Renihan, head school safety. She said her work was reviewed by the Sheriff's Office, representatives from contracted security company SafePlans and school-level staff including guidance counselors, social workers, teachers and administrators.

"We want our kids to be prepared but not living in fear, and that balance is a tricky one," Renihan said. "We begin to strike that balance by working with our staff, because they are the ones that set the tone … so that we don't forget the child on the receiving end of this."

Still, Renihan and others leading the school safety effort in Hernando have decided that, unlike Pinellas, they will instruct elementary teachers to use "plain language" during drills to ensure students fully understand the dangers they are being trained to avoid.

"It's a very fine line because it's new territory to use words like 'active shooter' with kids," Renihan said, adding that her experience as a longtime principal gives her a cautious perspective. "I understand how kids perceive things, but I also understand why we need to speak about things matter-of-factly."

While Hernando's teachers will not be instructed to reference guns during drills, they will be told to familiarize kids with the term "active shooter," which the script defines as "a person who is on our campus and there to hurt people," she added.

EDUCATION MATTERS: Keep track of news and trends that affect you. Visit the Times education page.

Lisa Cropley, principal of Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill, said adjusting to the new way of life for schools after the Parkland shooting is a constant "back-and-forth." She worked closely with Renihan to develop the script and other safety plans for her school, she said.

"You want to make sure that you are relaying a sense of urgency, but not a sense of pure chaos," Cropley said. "A real emergency can't be the first time (students) hear these words. … Sugar-coating it really isn't necessarily going to help."

Herbic, the Pinellas deputy superintendent, compared the recent changes to a swinging pendulum that eventually find it's place in the middle, where students are prepared but still understand that schools are overwhelmingly safe places.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "In some areas, we don't have a lot of work to do. … In others, we have a ways to go."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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