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“Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? ... If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough.” — President Barack Obama, speaking at a prayer vigil in Newtown, Conn., two days after the Dec. 15 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
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Citrus County’s little children laugh, play, dream. They go to school, learn to read and write, and make hand puppets for their moms and dads.
Youngsters evolve into teenagers who become moody, curious and opinionated. They explore themselves and others, garner relationships, evolve in their own form of creativity. Some will draw, or sing, or play quarterback on Friday nights in the fall.
If all goes well, they grow up with supportive teachers, loving family and a strong sense of right and wrong.
But are they safe?
Is harm lurking around each corner? Harm from abusive parents, drunken drivers, gun-toting thugs or even classmates?
Are they victims of circumstance?
Some children have mental-health issues that make them unruly, despondent, unpredictable. Parents place hope on a system designed to protect their children from hurting themselves or others.
And so the question, asked by President Obama two days after the slaughter of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, remains: Are we doing our best to keep children — the innocents — free from harm?
The Citrus County Chronicle today begins a yearlong series that will explore that question. Every few weeks, we will explore safety in the area of schools, mental health, courts, crime and the home. We’ll see whether programs designed to protect children work or not. The series will draw on experiences from experts, advocates, parents and children.
The question is not an easy one to answer, even with some of Citrus County’s leading child advocates.
“You can’t legislate safety,” Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said. “That has to be driven by the community. That’s where we’re very lucky in this county.”
Dawsy’s office partners with the Citrus County School District and other agencies to create a mix of programs designed to keep children from harm.
School resource officers give the sheriff’s office a presence in schools. The Teen Driving Challenge teaches young drivers how to avoid traffic accidents. The Safe School Teen Protection program — STP for short — opens dialogue between the sheriff’s office, school district and social agencies to pinpoint children whose unstable home environment may lead to problems in school and elsewhere.
Dawsy knows those programs are effective in keeping schools safe. But they aren’t perfect.
“There’s always new stuff to do,” he said. “Every Friday afternoon I have a sigh of relief and every Monday my anxiety goes up.”
Veteran school board member Pat Deutschman said children in the U.S. seem at risk more now than ever before.
“Too many children are dying. Too many children are being killed,” she said. “Children get in the way of violence too often.”
Schools have spent millions of dollars tightening security, particularly after the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“I feel like we go overboard in overreacting to situations,” she said. “After Columbine, there were more SROs in school. That was a good thing. Then we started putting up fences around schools. A lot of money is spent in changing the way schools operate in so far as entry and exit. Video cameras in hallways and on buses. It’s been at an enormous expense. And there have been very few incidences that would have caused us to spend this money.”
She added, though: “I guess it’s also preventative.”
Something must be working because the school board is seeing fewer student expulsions related to weapons, Deutschman said.
“In the last year, I think we haven’t had an expulsion of a kid using a weapon,” she said. “A lot of things are put in place. We’re teaching awareness of the severe penalties. It must be getting to them.”
Mental health advocates also say programs protect children from harm.
Diane Daniels, chief clinical officer for the Centers in Ocala and Lecanto, said about 30 percent to 40 percent of the program’s 13,000 clients last year were younger than 18.
Daniels, who has 43 years in the profession including 19 years at the Centers, said there is a much greater awareness of issues involving children in the past 20 years. Child abuse, for example, is reported much more today than in earlier decades.
“Forty years ago, it was just not something that was urged and promoted in the community,” she said. “We’re more alert and aware today and there are more safeguards. The down side is there are more children to deal with.”
Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.