tampabay.com

We want our children to attend school in a 'friendly place'

By ELISABETH DYER
Published February 16, 2007


Albert Einstein is reported to have said that the most important question facing humanity is, "Is the universe a friendly place?"

We want to believe it is so. Especially for our children.

So talking to them about sexual predators can be like telling them the bogeyman is indeed real and the universe is not friendly.

Yet talks like these occur in cases such as those involving a vendor at Coleman Middle School last month and a coach fired in November from Tampa Preparatory School.

We parents are perplexed by competing desires: to reassure and to warn.

At Coleman, a 14-year-old girl said a man grabbed her from behind in a bear hug. Jeremiah Coomer is charged with lewd or lascivious molestation of a minor.

Swim coach Kimberly Brabson III was charged with video voyeurism after being accused of filming dozens of girls ages 10 to 15 as they tried on swim wear at his request in his office at Tampa Prep.

Gordon MacLeod, head of school at Tampa Prep, said faculty members were surprised by the charges against Brabson, who, MacLeod said, was well-liked.

Three girls have since filed suit against the former coach and the school, alleging negligence in employing Brabson.

The incident at Coleman was also a surprise, said district spokesman Steve Hegarty. The accused man was making a delivery on his second day of employment and was not supposed to have access to students.

"Coleman is quite secure," Hegarty said, compared with many other district schools.

There are no plans to beef up security.

Hegarty would prefer that schools not be overly restrictive. For instance, he said, requiring fingerprint background checks for each guest to the Great American Teach-in would be too onerous.

Sounds like he's one for the friendly universe model.

Indeed, 30 or 40 years ago, school campuses were designed to be inviting.

My co-worker Jeff Solochek calls these the "Southern school model," with their outdoor hallways that students can enter from all sides, as opposed to the closed compounds common in the North.

David Friedberg, Hillsborough's school security chief, calls them "open-wing schools." He recommends that teachers at these schools teach with doors locked.

"Times have changed," says Friedberg, on the job 13 years. "We've taken maps of schools off Web sites. Isn't that horrible?"

Yes, it is.

Friedberg was an Air Force chief of police before taking this post. He's a good guy to have on our side. At any time, he can tell you the number of registered sex offenders and predators in Hillsborough County. Monday's numbers: 1,334 sexual offenders and 122 predators.

"We monitor every single day relative to predators," he said. His department has notified schools since 1997 every time a sexual predator moves within a mile, two years before it became state law. Now they're considering adding access control, which would search for criminal records as guests sign in.

Yet criminal record checks would not have stopped the problem at Coleman or Tampa Prep.

Incidentally, Friedberg's department plans for every conceivable crisis, from trespassing to shootings to terrorists attacks.

Even with his job, Friedberg opposes fencing in schools entirely.

"We don't want our schools looking like jails," he said. "It doesn't look good. It doesn't feel good."

We still want to believe the universe is friendly.

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at 226-3321 or edyer@sptimes.com Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.