1. The Education Gradebook

Tampa Bay grade schools: modern-day fortresses, yet still vulnerable

Published Dec. 15, 2012

The 21st century schoolhouse is something of a fortress.

In the Tampa Bay area, grade schools are typically fenced off and often protected by video surveillance systems. Visitors ranging from class moms to guest speakers are routed through front offices, where they hand over driver's licenses to be checked against a sexual predator database. Resource officers are assigned to some elementary schools.

In today's world, a first-grade teacher might one day become a first responder. So, in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, educators who spent years learning how to teach math and reading now act out disaster scenarios in something called "active shooter" training. Hillsborough County schools also undergo regular emergency training.

And despite all these safety precautions, there is one bottom line: They might not work.

"We've done everything that we can think about to make (schools) as secure as possible," said Michael Bessette, Pinellas schools associate superintendent for facilities, operations, safety and security.

But he says there's probably no institution that's completely safe "if somebody is bound and determined to wreak havoc."

"What it comes down to is you can't stop a person from coming onto campus," said Barry Crowley, the longtime manager of safety and security for Hernando schools. "What you can do is minimize their ability to actually get to people to harm them."

The first thing a school does when a shooter is spotted is order a lockdown, which serves to compartmentalize the building, Crowley said.

In a lockdown, each classroom is locked from the inside. Lights are turned off, windows are covered and students are instructed to stay away from doors and windows. They are instructed not to open the door, except for law enforcement. It takes a special card or key to open any of the classroom doors.

Each classroom has a phone, and people inside can report any information to school administration or law enforcement. Schools practice lockdowns twice a year.

On Friday afternoon, news of the shooting was filtering through schools at roughly dismissal time. Pasco schools tweeted tips for parents on how to talk about such tragedies (from @PascoSupport).

"Parents are rightfully concerned," said Lizette Alexander, Pasco schools' director of student support. "We are very saddened by the situation."

In Hillsborough County, the Sheriff's Office will increase its visibility at elementary schools in unincorporated areas beginning Monday as a way to reassure parents and students, sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said.

Staff writers Marlene Sokol and Jeffrey S. Solocheck contributed to this report.