Pinellas considering locks and buzzers for some schools

Published Jan. 18, 2013

Some Pinellas County schools may begin locking their doors during the day and requiring buzz-in access, the district's top security administrator said Thursday.

Michael Bessette, the associate superintendent for operational services, told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday that he has reviewed about two-thirds of the district's schools and has seen some clear instances where a buzzer would be beneficial and others where it would not.

Bessette said electronic locks and buzzers have become a popular potential security measure after the December shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school left 20 young children and six adults dead.

"Everyone wanted an electronic lock and door buzzer," said Bessette, adding that they were specifically requested by county principals.

The cost of each system would range from a couple of hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on whether an administrator could see the door or whether a camera would need to be installed.

The school system had already employed buzz-in access at five or six of its schools, Bessette said, in response to specific incidents at those schools.

Bessette said he expects to end his review of the schools and begin making decisions about the buzzers within the next week or two.

The district also has increased the number of "roaming" police officers who monitor the schools.

The School Board plans to discuss safety further at a Tuesday work session.

Amid security concerns after the Newtown shooting, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch spoke with two School Board members about the possibility of funding for school resource officers at the elementary school level. School resource officers are already posted in middle and high schools.

But the proposal received a tepid response from the School Board. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called it unnecessary.

At a meeting of the county's parent-teacher association Thursday evening, Bessette and School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook highlighted safety measures already in place in the schools.

Bessette stressed that administrators conduct site visits to check how secure the schools' perimeters are each year. Recently, he said, a principal was "embarrassed" when officials saw that she had left a gate open, thinking it more convenient for parents during pickup.

Mary Bartholf, president of the county's PTA, said she believes each school needs an individual solution to safety concerns, and is encouraged that the school system appears to be taking that tack.

"I'm truly not certain that putting an armed guard in every school is the answer," Bartholf said. "I think that Michael's team is doing the right thing, determining what's right for each school, to improve the security and control access. What's the best way to do that? I'm not sure."

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Editor's note

This story was changed to reflect the following clarification: After the Newtown shootings, County Commissioner Ken Welch spoke with two School Board members about the possibility of funding for school resource officers at the elementary school level. A story Friday misstated his position.