TAMPA — The December shooting deaths at a Connecticut elementary school continue to weigh on the minds of students in Hillsborough County.
Throughout Tuesday's student forum, where high schoolers grill School Board members, several talked about safety concerns.
"At my school, any student can push open a door leading outside and anybody from the outside can come in," said Nathaniel Santana of the D.W. Waters Career Center.
Lindsey Backman of the Bowers-Whitley Center called for guards in uniform shirts, metal detectors, more fencing and maybe fingerprint scanning.
Kelsey Gemmil of Sickles High asked, "Will there be any type of training for teachers or guidance counselors to monitor student mental health more closely, starting at elementary school and throughout high school, in order to ensure our schools stay safe against gun violence?"
Board members assured their audience that, although a proposed $3.7 million-a-year security plan did not sail through last month, they are committed to tackling the issue thoughtfully.
A security consultant was hired. A workshop is planned in March. And last week, the board voted unanimously to tighten access at the least-protected schools.
"Safety and security are on all our minds, and it is the utmost for the board," member Carol Kurdell said.
Chairwoman April Griffin, who has argued for a holistic approach that includes character education, said "this is a discussion that needs to be a comprehensive discussion."
The question-and-answer session has been around for decades. Invariably there are questions about grades and school lunch. This year was no different.
Students wanted to know why they had to take final exams after winter break. They wanted to know why they risked losing exam exemptions if they took a day off to tour a college.
They questioned the district's decision to test out pay-for-play lacrosse at a small number of schools. They complained that the media centers are closed too often for testing.
"As I listen to your questions, it occurs to me that you are very plugged in and aware of some of the same concerns that we as board members are concerned about," said member Doretha Edgecomb.
Some questions were answered on the spot. Others will be handled in followup emails.
Member Candy Olson gave detailed explanations of state laws that affect exam exemptions and scheduling.
"The calendar you're now operating under was put in place when you went home and worked in the fields in the summer," she said. But these days, she added, the state frees up teen workers during tourist season.
Member Stacy White did his best to explain the lacrosse decision and urged those students interested in lacrosse to start club teams at their own schools.
Justin Zeger of Hillsborough High got a round of applause when he took a stab at the Empowering Effective Teachers evaluations. His teachers get weeks of notice before their peer observations, giving them ample time to prepare.
"The lessons that the peer evaluators get to receive are nothing like what we receive in the classroom," Zeger said.
Before explaining that the district has added spontaneous "drop-in" observations, superintendent MaryEllen Elia tested Zeger's vocabulary.
"How perspicacious of you," she told him.