By TOM CHANG, MERAB-MICHAL FAVORITE and ELAINE ALLEN-EMRICH STAFF WRITERS
ENGLEWOOD — Schools in Sarasota and Charlotte counties are reacting to the tragic Connecticut school massacre Friday that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six school staffers by going over lockdown procedures, reassessing security and offering to help students cope.
But school officials are offering few specifics yet on what, if any security upgrades will be made.
“Our security measures are strong,” said Gary Leatherman, director of communications at Sarasota County schools. “We want people to know we have a very strong system in place. We’re consistently reevaluating the process with security. ”
Leatherman said Superintendent Lori White has been in contact with school security across the county.
“We’re in discussions, but nothing is concrete as far as changes,” Leatherman said. “We had a working system in place for about a decade. We’re continuously more stringent in our policies and we’re always looking to improve.”
A reminder was sent to area schools that counselors are available, but the shootings are not up for discussions in the classrooms, Leatherman said.
Mike Riley, spokesman for Charlotte County schools, said security discussions were being held at Charlotte County schools.
Charlotte schools observed a moment of silence in the wake of the shootings.
“There will be a response, but nothing is concrete yet,” Riley said. “We’re on high alert. The superintendent (Doug Whittaker) met with security to make sure measures are in place. We’re all over the place in checking to see if any help is required.”
Most of the schools in Charlotte County were rebuilt after Hurricane Charley with security systems that allow only one point of access where a visitor could not gain entry without first being buzzed in by administration, Riley said. All other doors are locked on the outside.
Only four schools in the district are not equipped with this system and Riley said officials are doing everything they can to solve that problem. Riley asked that those schools not be listed as they are the most susceptible to a security breach. He added that even with a security system in place, the recent shooting was not prevented.
“Sandy Hook Elementary had a lock system too, but the guy just blew the locks off,” he said.
Lemon Bay High School, which is halfway through an almost total reconstruction, will, once completed, have a horseshoe-design with security in mind, according to Principal Dan Jeffers. The horseshoe shape will allow a more secure campus as access during school hours will be restricted to the main office.
“When it’s done, it will be state-of-the-art with 250 cameras,” Jeffers said. “Roughly half of them are in operation now.”
There are resource officers at every middle and high school in the district and two officers share the different elementary schools, but Riley said law enforcement has assigned extra people to monitor schools this week as a precaution.
Riley said that he has talked to a lot of kids, and most are going about business as usual. However, counselors and social workers are available for children who request a session to cope with the recent tragedy.
“They will be given immediate assistance,” said Riley. “Everyone is vigilant and on high alert.”
As for parents taking their children out of public schools, Riley said that there have been some comments via Facebook.
“Someone posted that they were going to begin homeschooling,” said Riley. “Another parent commented that they would need to install a mall and a movie theater too.”
Security was tested at North Port High School Monday morning after an anonymous group posted threats of planned explosions at the school on Facebook.
About eight police officers, three detectives and three bomb-sniffing dogs responded to the campus.
Scared students began calling their parents asking them to sign them out of school. By 1 p.m. when parents were notified of the alleged threat, more than 500 students had left the campus.
Leatherman said that as students began to report the threat posted on Facebook to school staff, they notified the school resource officers, who alerted NPPD detectives. Since the city doesn’t have bomb-sniffing dogs, they contacted Lee County officials and requested dogs come to the school.
“We took the threat very seriously,” said NPPD Sgt. Scott Graham. “We are working to trace the origin of the posting. There was no specific threat made to anyone. It was vague. However, we take them all seriously, especially in the wake of the shooting last Friday. We had five additional officers on campus.”
Leatherman said the district has protocol such as: working with law enforcement and calling parents, notifying them of the alleged threat as well as the campus being cleared by the three bomb-sniffing dogs.
“Safety is a high priority on campus,” he said “Police were working to check the campus and we worked to notify parents of the measures we had taken for student safety. We would encourage parents to tell their children things will return to normal on campus and it is all right to return to school.”
Sarasota County school district officials insist all schools in the county are safe.
“There are 3,000 cameras in schools across the district,” Leatherman said. “The district spends $2 million on school security (cameras, maintenance) including school security officers and school resource officers.”
Elementary schools in Sarasota County do not have school resource officers — unlike the middle and high schools. But Scott Lempe, COO for Sarasota County Schools, said in an ABC-7 TV report he remains comfortable with the security at all 24 public elementary schools in the county, that the buildings are safe and secure and not easy for strangers to access.
What a school psychologist says Traumatic events like the shootings at Newtown, Conn., often evoke heightened awareness in the community, according to Tim Gissal, a school psychologist for Sarasota County.
“We’re trying to not get people to overreact,” Gissal said.
Gissal said children’s responses to such traumatic events differ with age and there’s no single formulaic way to treat all individuals since everybody handles trauma differently.
“Silence hurts,” Gissal said. “For some students and staff, events like these trigger an immediate response.”
The shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech reinforced the need for safe security measures and routine codes, Gissal said.
“The major goal is to keep children safe and secure,” Gissal said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
To better cope with such events, Gissal suggests listening to your child, and responding in a developmentally appropriate fashion. Also, limit their exposure, don’t get preoccupied, give children unconditional love and get into a routine.
Gov. Rick Scott on Monday called on school districts to review emergency procedures and devise methods for enhancing security in Florida schools, according to a prepared statement. The Governor also encouraged school leaders to communicate with families the current safety procedures and the additional actions schools are taking in enhancing safety and protection for students.“Following the tragedy in Connecticut, I join parents everywhere who want to make sure our students are safe,” Scott said. “To better protect Florida’s children, I’m asking Florida school districts to review their emergency procedures and work alongside the Department of Education, FDLE and local law enforcement to review and enhance on-campus emergency plans to ensure the safety and well-being of our students. School should be a sanctuary for learning and creativity where students, teachers and parents feel safe — and a review of these procedures will enhance safety for Florida schools.”In 2001, the Florida Legislature passed the Safe Passage Act requiring every district to have a clearly directed safety and security program that includes comprehensive plans with input from parents, community representatives, local emergency agencies, teachers, staff, and students. Each year, districts must assess and update their emergency plans using a comprehensive assessment tool.In 2003, the Florida Department of Education adopted a statewide policy detailing school preparation and response to emergencies and threats of violence.The department’s Office of Safe Schools works with districts to implement safety objectives; including:• Limiting school entry points
• Inspecting school grounds daily for suspicious persons
• Establishing communication procedures for alerting parents
• Enhancing police patrol of campus during peak times of traffic and activity.
—Source: Governor’s office