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Eyes on school security

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Officials say safety top priority

By Mike Wright

INVERNESS — Once upon a time, someone could walk up to Pleasant Grove Elementary School and waltz right in.

There was always a “visitors must check into the office” sign, but really no way to monitor that other than a school employee spotting a stranger in the hallway.

Lynn Brooks is happy those days are gone.

Brooks is the school’s receptionist and has worked at Pleasant Grove for 19 years. She has seen the installation of door buzzers, video cameras and driver’s license scanners — all designed to make the school safe for its students and staff.

“The parents like what we’re doing,” she said. “They like the security.”

John Colasanti, who oversees maintenance for the school district, agreed security stops potential problems before they start.

But, referring to the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, where a gunman killed 26 people including 20 children, Colasanti added:

“If somebody wants to get in here, they’ll get in here.”

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Columbine changed the way the public views access to schools.

Schools underwent drastic security changes after the April 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., caused by two high school seniors who entered through an unlocked door. They killed 12 students and a teacher.

Parents’ concern about child safety at school skyrocketed. Horrified educators realized how vulnerable they had been.

In public debate that followed, school officials struggled with the balance of keeping children safe with offering a school environment not resembling an armed fortress.

Citrus County officials say they have acted in numerous ways in recent years to strike that balance, including:

+ A partnership with the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office to provide school resource officers, or SROs, in every high school and middle school, with deputies assigned to elementary schools certain days a week. Educators say the presence of uniformed deputies in the schools has a calming effect on students and teachers.

+ School doors are now locked from the outside once school starts. Employees use their identification badges to gain access. Only a handful of district officials have keys, and they use those only when a power outage disables the electronic entry mechanism.

+ Schools are now designed to ensure everyone who enters checks in at an office or front desk. At Pleasant Grove, Hernando, Floral City and Citrus Springs elementary schools, visitors press a buzzer and the door is unlocked by someone in the front office who can see the visitor from a monitor.

At other schools, the front doors either lead directly to the front desk or visitors are physically directed to the office by ropes or barriers.

+ All visitors must now have their driver’s license scanned and wear identification stickers while in school. This came about from the Jessica Lunsford Act, named for the 9-year-old Homosassa girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in March 2005 by a man who authorities discovered had worked at a construction site at Homosassa Elementary School.

+ As part of the act, all construction workers and vendors must undergo criminal background checks before they can come in or near a school.

+ Classroom doors installed in new or renovated schools can be locked from the inside and the outside. Classroom doors at other schools may be locked only from the hallway.

Lynn Brooks, the receptionist at Pleasant Grove, said the security measures have helped her keep an eye on who’s in the school.

When visitors come to the front entrance, a sign taped to the door lets them know they should ring the security buzzer and state their name and reason for visiting. It also asks visitors to look toward the left, where a camera can capture their face.

And it adds: “Please do not allow other visitors to enter the building. We need to grant access to each individual.”

Brooks, at her desk in the main office, can see the visitor on the monitor.

“I always speak to the person out there. Most of them I recognize,” she said.

Once buzzed in, cameras in the hallway keep track of visitors so Brooks knows they come right to the front office before heading to their destination in the school.

“They’ve got to come here first,” Brooks said.

Sometimes visitors are not allowed in. Often, those are cases of divorced parents where one parent who does not have custody wants to see his child. Brooks said she seeks assistance from Principal Lynne Kirby or assistant principal Rob Hermann.

The driver’s license scanner, called the Raptor system, alerts school authorities to anyone who is a registered sexual offender or predator. Those cases are then handled by the principal, assistant principal or SRO.

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Once again, though, schools are on high alert after the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman forced his way into the school, killing 20 first-graders and six educators, including the school principal.

Citrus County officials say they plan a school-by-school audit in January to make sure safety features are in proper order and employees are aware of safety processes. They said the district already has a safety committee that meets regularly to discuss potential security upgrades.

School board member Pat Deutschman said she thinks the Citrus school district does what it can to protect students and staff from danger.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in additional safety measures the last 10 years,” she said. “Our teachers are very well trained, as were the teachers at Sandy Hook. Our SROs constantly undergo training. The sheriff’s office is highly integrated in the school district.”

Kirby, the Pleasant Grove Elementary principal, agreed.

“We’re doing everything that’s humanly possible,” she said.

She said some parents have offered suggestions, from installing bullet-proof glass in the schools to principals packing firearms in their offices.

One lawmaker has introduced a bill allowing for armed principals in schools. Another lawmaker is calling on Gov. Rick Scott to install full-time SROs in elementary schools.

Deutschman said she hopes the Sandy Hook tragedy doesn’t lead to knee-jerk legislation that is costly and ineffective.

“You have to bring some reasonable common sense,” she said. “When you have a situation like this, people want to run out making rules and laws that could cause a lot of unintended consequences. Let’s be careful to not over-mandate certain things without really thinking it through.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.