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Pinellas school officials taking measured approach to security

CLEARWATER - With their counterparts across the Bay voting today on whether to hire private security guards to patrol elementary schools, Pinellas County School Board members are just beginning formal talks about increasing security after last month's school shooting in Connecticut. At their meeting today, Pinellas school officials will review their school safety plans and discuss whether changes need to be made, in the wake of the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The discussion was a late addition to today's agenda, and school board members on Monday said they were unsure how in-depth their talks would be. The school district and the Pinellas County Council of PTA's will host a State of the District meeting Thursday to discuss school safety plans and answer parents' questions. The meeting starts at 6:15 p.m. at the school district's administration building, at 301 Fourth St. S.W. in Largo. School board members have also scheduled a Jan. 22 workshop to talk about possible changes to the safety plans; but because the meeting is a workshop, the school board won't be able to adopt changes.
In part, that lack of urgency reflects the confidence school board members say they have in their safety plans. "I really think that we're very well-covered," School Board member Terry Krassner said. "Right now, everybody's very aware of the measures we have in place, and we're just going to continue looking and reviewing and strengthening as we go." In Hillsborough County, school board members are scheduled to vote today on a multimillion-dollar plan to hire 130 private, armed security guards to guard elementary schools. School officials have spent the past few months bumping up security and decided this month to place armed police officers and deputies in every elementary school for the rest of the academic year. But in Pinellas, options are still being weighed. "I think it's an important, complex issue, and I am open to all possibilities; but I have not made up my mind about any particular policy that would include more armed people in elementary schools," said School Board member Linda Lerner. Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego met with elementary school principals Thursday and discussed increasing police presence in schools, particularly at the start and end of the school day, as well as sending in school district police officers in street clothes to test school security by trying to get in without checking in at the schools' front offices. In a letter sent to parents last week, Grego said the school district is reviewing each school's crisis plan, increasing the presence of school district police officers at county schools and making "unannounced site visits to determine how safety measures already in place are working." In the weeks after the Connecticut shooting, Pinellas sheriff's deputies were posted at every school. Deputies continue to have frequent contact with schools to ease concerns, said sheriff's office spokesman Sgt. David DiSano. Deputies visit schools on a regular basis to talk with parents, teachers and students, he said. School resource officers are already posted at every middle and high school in Pinellas County, and campus police officers patrol elementary schools. Many of the new elementary schools feature a buzzer system that keeps all doors to the school locked unless a person is let in by the main office, said board member Robin Wikle. Though Wikle said she believes that hiring private security guards would be a "difficult financial burden" for Pinellas to bear, the School Board has received many creative ideas from the public to curtail security threats. One idea came from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who recently suggested to Wikle placing unmanned, extra sheriff's cars outside schools as a deterrent. "I think that's a great idea," Wikle said. Mary Bartholf, president of the Pinellas County Council of PTA's, said she has noticed increased security when dropping off and picking up her daughter at Osceola High School in Seminole. The school has limited the entrances students can use in the morning and where they can be dropped off and has more staff members monitoring the process. "The changes haven't disrupted anything for the students and, as far as I'm aware, everything is working well," said Bartholf, who will help lead Thursday's State of the District meeting. The Florida Senate Education Committee is scheduled to today discuss changes to safety procedures in Florida schools, while the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education will meet Wednesday to explore the cost of improving security. And last week, state Rep. Carl Zimmerman, a Countryside High School teacher, filed a bill calling for schools to change the locks on classroom doors so they lock from the inside, as well as outfitting doors with bulletproof windows. Friday, Zimmerman discussed his school safety plan with teachers from across the globe in a BBC news podcast. This academic year, Florida spent a little more than $65 million on security through the Safe School fund, mainly to pay school resource officers. Each school district received a minimum of $62,660, according to the Florida Department of Education.

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