Florida Schools Explore Student Safety Guidelines

Constant vigilance is the safety measure Manatee County schools are turning to in the wake of recent abductions of girls in the Tampa Bay area.

Though none of the abductions has involved a child at school, district officials are reviewing ways to tighten campus security as a precaution.

"We're looking at every procedure and policy that we have that relates to this issue so that we are making sure we're protecting the students at the schools," said Forrest Branscomb, risk manager for the school system. "We're also looking at new policies to ensure that protection."

During a meeting of School Advisory Council members from various schools, Branscomb explained some new avenues the district might explore to ratchet up security.

"We're looking at ways we can better address contractors who come onto our campuses," Branscomb said Wednesday at the district's administration building. "We're also looking at revisiting our policies on overnight trips, and on chaperones and volunteers."

The school system offers at least two types of education programs for elementary school students to teach them about potentially harmful strangers.

One program, offered by the Manatee County Sheriff's office, explains the lures that sexual offenders use to entice children into dangerous situations. The school district also allows representatives of Manatee Children's Services to teach the Kids Personal Safety program at elementary schools that gives children safety tips and advice.

Debbie Massey, co-chair of the School Advisory Council at Blackburn Elementary, said the safety of local children is everyone's concern.

"Everybody has to keep an eye out," Massey said. "At Blackburn everybody has to go to the office and they have a visitor's pass. If somebody doesn't have a visitor's pass and a staff member sees that, you tell them they need to have it."

Bashaw Elementary SAC chairman Jim Toomey said his school is thinking about purchasing extra security surveillance equipment.

All of the cameras we have purchased right now are for exterior buildings, they're watching parking lots and access points," Toomey said. "I feel the personnel on campus are well trained and very alert, but in these instances you can never be too alert, therefore we're trying to take extra measures to beef up security."

Several SAC members at Wednesday's meeting said they felt good about the security in local schools.

"McNeal is a new school and it is all enclosed, so I think a lot of us feel very comfortable," said McNeal SAC member Robyn Richards. "You have to go through the front door, you can't enter any other way and if you're not known, you're asked for identification."

At Johnson Middle School, principal Ann McDonald spoke with her staff Wednesday about security matters.

"We talked about making sure our teachers are aware where their kids are at all times," McDonald said. "If someone is not in our room, then they need to notify the school office right away."

At Prine Elementary in Bradenton, guidance counselor Shawn Griffon said the school just went through the Kids Personal Safety program last week. She also sends out tips on security matters in the monthly newsletter.

All across Manatee County, the issue of child safety seemed to be on many minds.

"You can't take your eyes off a child for a second anymore," Massey said. "It's our responsibility to take care of everybody's children."