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    Vigilant schools defuse threats

    Officials say potentially violent incidents are being staved off by students who speak up when they see or hear something.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001

    A 15-year-old outcast goes to high school Monday waving a revolver. A 17-year-old visits a middle school Tuesday with a revolver in his waistband.

    In the first case, the student killed two classmates and injured 13 others in a shooting at Santana High School near San Diego. In the second case, at St. Petersburg's Meadowlawn Middle School, a police officer grabbed the 17-year-old and took the gun. No one was hurt.

    In both cases, at least one person knew about the potential danger. The difference: In the second case, a student told a police officer as soon as she spotted the gun on campus.

    "I think our biggest asset are the eyes and the ears of our students," Meadowlawn principal Greg Cardone said. "They are far better than any metal detectors. Students don't miss anything."

    In the St. Petersburg case, John Wayne Morrison was charged with trespassing and two counts of carrying a concealed firearm on school property after a student said she saw him drop a .22-caliber revolver and alerted an officer who was visiting the school.

    Since Monday's shooting in California, area schools have seen a troubling rash of copycat threats. A student at Palm Harbor's Carwise Middle School was arrested Tuesday and charged with threatening to put bombs in garbage cans at school and "shoot anybody who got in the way," Pinellas sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie said. He did not have bombmaking equipment or a gun.

    A first-grader at Hillsborough's Valrico Elementary School was sent home Tuesday after bringing an unloaded BB gun to school. Two elementary students were arrested Wednesday on misdemeanor charges after playing with a cap gun on the bus ride to Pinellas' Azalea Elementary School. One student fired the plastic gun. Also Wednesday, a student at Calvin Hunsinger School in Clearwater was arrested after warning a teacher not to attend school Thursday because he planned to blow it up.

    And in Manatee County, a 17-year-old Bayshore High School sophomore was arrested Wednesday after another student spotted him showing off a loaded handgun.

    In each case, students or teachers overheard the threats and reported them.

    "The schools have to foster a climate of acceptance, where their voices are heard and they're taken seriously," said Diane Lajoie, a school psychologist who teaches anger management to ninth-graders. "You have to send a message to kids that it's a false sense of loyalty to protect someone who might cause harm."

    The recent incidents, while disturbing, are no reason to rush to install walk-through metal detectors at every school and have every campus locked tight, Superintendent Howard Hinesley said.

    "I'm certainly always supportive of looking at ways we can make campuses safe, but I don't think we're at the point now where you put up fences and barbed wire," Hinesley said. "Because that doesn't stop kids anyway if they want to do it."

    The district is most proud of the anger management, peer mediation, conflict resolution and character courses that are offered at most schools. All middle and high schools have school resource officers, and some high schools have two. Many schools try to channel student traffic through a single entrance and exit or ask students and teachers to wear identification tags. All schools have crisis plans, and safety training is offered.

    In the Meadowlawn incident, St. Petersburg police Detective Anthony Peterson was at the school Tuesday afternoon to teach seventh-graders about how to tell whether someone is in a gang.

    When the class was finished, a girl approached Peterson and told him she saw someone with a gun in school. The girl told him she saw a person, later identified as Morrison, drop the gun on the floor when he entered or left school property.

    Peterson went looking for Morrison, who left the campus. The unloaded revolver was in Morrison's waistband. He was not carrying any ammunition, Peterson said.

    Morrison told police he had no intention of hurting anyone at the school. He is not a Pinellas County student and was on campus with a friend who had gotten a visitor's pass at the front office to visit a school employee.

    Meadowlawn has several entrances and no security cameras, but that will change when a new school is built by August 2002. Cardone said a hall monitor spends all day wandering the campus and that he doubts Morrison or anyone else could have gotten far into campus. Morrison made it to the front hallway.

    "I feel very safe," Cardone said. "I think you have to nurture the relationship where students feel comfortable approaching adults. They want to be safe as much as you and I want to be safe."

    How does a school create an atmosphere of trust?

    Cardone said adults need to constantly remind students that they, too, are responsible for school safety. Campus police Chief Joe Feraca said school resource officers should make themselves available for students. Lajoie said students should be taught the consequences of violence.

    Hinesley said the district should work as hard as it can to keep student tips confidential. In a recent case at Palm Harbor Middle School, two students told authorities that another student was building a bomb to bring to school.

    The students, fearing retribution from their classmates, don't want their identities made public. So the district quietly is making them plaques, honoring their good citizenship.

    "Ultimately, the metal detectors and the locked doors don't really seem to help as much as kids being able to feel safe and comfortable," said Barry Berger, chairman of the School Advisory Council at Palm Harbor Middle School, which is trying to come up with a system of rewarding students for tips about safety issues. "The problem is getting that word out to the kids."

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