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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017
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School drop-off tough for parents despite added security

TAMPA - Keith and Susie Sidwell thought it was going to be a typical back-to-school Monday morning for their two children at Westchase Elementary. "Until I got up this morning, I didn't think it was going to be hard to take them back to school," Susie Sidwell said. Then later, as she got ready to tell Bella and Faith goodbye, she realized something. "What I realized was how tight I was holding my kindergartner's hand," the mother said. "I was holding on a lot tighter than normal."
What seemed like a normal Monday morning across the Hillsborough County School District and other Tampa Bay area counties was anything but that as parents dropped their children off for the first time since Friday's horrific elementary school shooting in Connecticut. All schools in Hillsborough County were on modified lockdown. One aspect of that is that the front door to the school office is locked. Tampa police, Hillsborough County deputies and officers from the school district were on campuses this morning for the beginning of classes. At Westchase, three uniformed law enforcement personnel were on hand in the front parking lot. It seemed like a routine Monday at first glance – except for television news crews camping out in front of the school, which alarmed some. "My daughter wasn't even upset until she saw the TV news trucks," one parent said. Apparently, some students were worried that something bad had happened at their school. That was not the case. No schools in the Bay area have received any threats. But vigilance is high at schools everywhere in the aftermath of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history: 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., including 20 children ages 6 and 7. The gunman then killed himself. In an effort to ensure their students' safety and calm parents' nerves, school districts in the Tampa area and across the United States have asked law enforcement to increase patrols and have sent messages to parents outlining safety plans. In Hillsborough, the high-visibility security will last the rest of the week, until the holiday break, officials said. Pasco County school officials have been reworking safety measures, Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd said. One part of that plan involves providing better access to schools for law enforcement. At Westchase, Bella and Faith went to school knowing that a lot of people had died in a shooting, but they didn't know it had occurred at an elementary school. "We don't want to hide the truth, but we want it to be age-appropriate," Susie Sidwell said. "They're not fearful, nor do we want them to be." The mother of the kindergarten and third-grade students said she was driving in the car Friday with her children when news of the school shooting came across the radio. "I burst into tears," she said. "I had to explain why Mommy was crying in the car." There was a lot of explaining over the weekend by many parents. Depending on the age of the child, some chose to tell them many of the details while others chose to tell them very little. Others, however, told their children nothing at all. Westchase Principal Scott Weaver said a guidance counselor will be available at the school throughout the day. "We are going to be looking for students that may appear as though they are going through the grieving process," Weaver said. "If we see any parents that are upset, we are going to encourage them to not remain in the classroom but to come up to the front office, and we will have our school psychologist, our guidance counselor and myself available to speak with them." Some parents asked this morning if the shooting was going to be addressed at school. They were concerned because they chose not to say a word about the tragedy to their kids. Amy Hewitt has a second-grader, Matthew, at Westchase and a sixth-grader at a private school. Her older child knows about the shooting while her younger one does not. "It just rocked me this weekend," she said of the incident. "I wasn't ready to deal with it yet" with her son, she said. "The fact that it was at an elementary school," Hewitt said, her voice trailing off. "I woke up this morning thinking of those parents who have lost those sweet kids."

News Channel 8 reporter Chip Osowski contributed to this report. rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999
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