School Security the Norm

Manatee High School junior Erin Christy knew all about code reds and lockdowns before the rash of school shootings that rocked the nation this week.

The 16-year-old has grown up in a post-Columbine school system, where security cameras are common in the classroom and violence prevention is part of the curriculum.

For many local students and educators, the recent spate of school shootings was a sobering reminder of why it is important to stay vigilant. In some cases, the shootings also highlighted the shortcomings of school security systems.

"It makes me wonder what would happen if it happened here," Erin said.

Even with heightened security in recent years, administrators acknowledge their systems aren't perfect. Educators constantly grapple with what else they can realistically do to keep outsiders off open campuses.

And while most schools and districts have policies for responding to a crisis, it's hard to know how effective they are until something happens.

"All of the schools that have been dealing with this probably have very similar emergency procedures," said Dan Jeffers, principal of Lemon Bay High School in Charlotte County. "The important thing to learn from this is it didn't end with Columbine."

After the Columbine shootings in Colorado, local school districts developed their own coding systems -- ranging from "code yellow" for a chemical spill to "code red" for an armed robbery in the neighborhood -- to promote a prompt response to emergencies.

Students no longer just practice fire drills, but also prepare for school shootings and bioterror situations.

Most Southwest Florida schools now have systems to screen visitors' backgrounds and track people coming on campus. Visitors are required to present their driver's license at the office, where the visitor's name is cross-checked with the state's sex offender database.

The visitor gets a badge complete with his or her photo and a description of where the visitor is supposed to go. Staff and students are told to report anyone who isn't wearing the correct identification.

"The key piece is you have to have vigilant staff," said Larry Leon, chief of the Sarasota schools police department. "Our staff is told to be on the lookout."

Some of the school systems' most significant efforts have been focused on the students -- both identifying those at risk for becoming violent and asking others to stay alert.

Educators say students who are troubled or feel disconnected pose a greater risk. Administrators try to identify students who seem to be drifting and get them help if they need it.

Even something as basic as the small learning centers popping up at high schools help ease students' transitions and prevent bullying.

"People always thought schools were a safe place," said Jim Pauley, principal at Braden River High School in Manatee. "Columbine was a real wake-up for security. Now, it's really ingrained at most schools."

As principal at Manatee's newest high school, Pauley saw firsthand how student safety concerns are influencing the basic infrastructure at schools.

Manatee administrators designed the high school to be more enclosed than older campuses, so there were fewer places for people to enter.

The campus is outfitted with 32 surveillance cameras, which administrators monitor by logging on to the Internet. They can even program the system to send an alert when someone enters an unauthorized part of campus.

For students at the school, these measures have become just another part of the school day.

Junior Krista Wells doesn't think twice about the periodic lockdowns, or rules prohibiting key chains with sharp edges that could be used as weapons.

"It's just become the norm," said Krista, 16.