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SouthShore Chamber looks to lead 9/11 awareness effort for Hillsborough schools

APOLLO BEACH — SouthShore Chamber of Commerce executive director Melanie Morrison picked up her daughters — and some of their neighborhood friends — on Sept. 11 last year and inquired about how they commemorated the tragic events and loss of life that occurred in a series of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"There were six kids in the car and I asked them what they had done at school that day," Morrison said. "Only one kid out of six said that her eighth-period class had talked about 9/11 for the whole hour. I couldn't believe that so little had been done, that there was no consistency in the schools, and that on 9/11, our kids were not talking about this at all."

The chamber's newly formed military affairs committee, under Morrison's leadership, aims to create an awareness program for the entire school district.

Over the years, different schools have recognized the day with some type of event. Students have planted flags, placed ribbons on trees, held moments of silence and invited first responders to attend ceremonies. Randall Middle School traditionally memorializes the 2,977 victims of 9/11 by placing a marker with each victim's name on it in the shape of a giant American flag.

Freedom High School, which opened in 2002 and was named in honor of those who died on 9/11, annually marks the day with a ceremony that begins at 8:46 a.m., the time the first of two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers.

However, the district has never formalized a program for every school. The military affairs committee wants to change that and recently met with superintendent Jeff Eakins. Morrison was joined in the meeting by chamber president Joey Henderson, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman and Kelly Kowall, a Gold Star mother and founder of My Warrior's Place, a retreat for veterans, active military members and the relatives of fallen soldiers.

Eakins was very open to the idea of setting up a pilot program to address the remembrance of 9/11 in a sensitive and meaningful manner, and expressed an interest in extending the recognition to other significant holidays.

"We are thrilled to partner with SouthShore Chamber of Commerce in order to develop meaningful opportunities for our students to learn about and properly recognize important dates such as Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Patriot Day," Eakins said. "This partnership exemplifies our commitment to building strong relationships among our students, families, employees and partners."

The group decided it needs more time to put a program in motion, but hopes to have a specific plan by Sept. 11, 2017.

Morrison suggested that the chamber take on the task of matching up schools with military personnel, law enforcement, fire rescue and other first responders for an assembly program. Or the officials could just meet with students to discuss the events of that day.

Marking the day grows more important when you consider the vast majority of K-12 students were born after 2001.

"All we think is important is just the facts of that day and that every kid in Hillsborough County be made aware of it, talk about it and remember it in some way," Morrison said. "They need to understand that these were radical extremists and we don't want to perpetuate any anger or hatred."

Contact Kathy Straub at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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