Plant City area schools are operating with extra safety precautions this week after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Conn. Friday, Dec. 14.
All Hillsborough County schools, including those in the Plant City area, are operating under modified lockdown procedures, which started Monday, Dec. 17. Principals have been directed to keep all doors locked, including the doors into administrative offices, which in most schools are normally unlocked.
Schools have also been directed to monitor who is coming on and off campus more closely and monitor any outdoor activity, like recess or physical education class. School resource officers, who are stationed at high schools middle schools on a regular basis, have been placed at all elementary schools, which don’t usually have resource officers.
“Today was more about reassuring the students and parents,” Stephen Hegarty, communications officer for Hillsborough County Public schools, said. “We didn’t expect anything to happen. After seeing what happened on Friday and the developments over the weekend, we wanted to assure parents and students that our schools are a safe place.”
In addition, guidance counselors, school psychologists and staff are available to any parent or teacher who would like someone to talk to.
The safety measures will last through the end of the week. The school district is currently in discussions with local law enforcement in regards to the resource officers, but they too will most likely be gone from elementary schools by the end of the week.
To have a resource officer at a school it costs the amount of the officers salary which is paid in part by the school district and in part by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Sergeant Christi Esquinaldo has been with Hillsborough County Sheriffs’s Department Schools Resources Section for two and one half years and has spent 16 years total at the Sheriff’s department.
Esquinaldo said that having school resource officers on school campuses “absolutely deters criminal activity from taking place,” adding that there have been instances where guns, drugs and gang activity have been reported on campuses at middle and high schools.
“If a deputy wasn’t there, those things might not have been reported,” Esquinaldo said.
Many middle and high schools in Hillsborough County are located near elementary schools and that the deputies that serve those schools are also familiar with the elementary schools, according to Esquinaldo.
Esquinaldo mentioned that there are several programs in place that focus on keeping students safe.
“Everything we do is geared to the safety of kids at schools,” she said.
One program that Hillsborough County has been working on for the past several years is its site profile program, which encompasses every school uniquely with arial photos and important phone numbers in an effort to help first responders at each school in the case of an emergency.
The Plant City Police Department is also planning to step up their efforts to patrol schools during the week and hopefully beyond, according to public information officer Tray Towles.
On the morning of Dec. 17, the patrol division was given a memorandum to check all schools in their zones throughout the day, be present during the start and finish of the school day and fill out their paperwork in school parking lots.
“Visibility is a huge factor,” Towles said. “In my mind, if you put more police there to be visible, it will be helpful to deter any activity.”
Towles says suspicious person calls coming from are schools aren’t common, but they do happen occasionally. Last week, the Plant City Police Department received a call from a middle school, but the suspicious person had already left the campus. The response time is about three to five minutes on most calls.
“We’re pretty responsive,” Towles said. “We live here, out kids go to school here.”
For the full story make sure to check out this week's Plant City Observer.