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Teens pipe up for safer schools

Administrators and the governor get an earful as students question whether it's possible to make schools safer.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000


TAMPA -- They apologized for harping on the establishment. For dissing school officials. For correcting their elders.

But as John Colby Carter, a senior at Hillsborough High School, put it, "I don't think I should have to feel uncomfortable in my own school."

It was no-holds-barred when 115 middle school and high school students gathered Thursday afternoon at Sickles High to speak their minds about school safety before a panel of elected officials that included Gov. Jeb Bush.

Students poked and prodded, asking pointed questions and demanding answers. Why, some wanted to know, are there varied responses to bomb threats? Why, others asked, are there not more adults to turn to when a student senses danger? Why, others wanted asked, aren't there more classes focused on drugs, sex and violence?

The sharpness of the queries seemed to catch some officials by surprise, thrusting them into speeches filled with bureaucratic lingo lost on the teenagers.

When Ashley Alex asked why exceptions were made for student athletes when it came time for punishment, Superintendent Earl Lennard replied with a detailed explanation of the district's expulsion policy, which he said follows a strict procedure compliant with "due process requirements."

"Zero tolerance doesn't mean that everyone is going to get the same punishment," he said. "It's like in a court of law.'"

Bush, sitting front and center on the auditorium stage, urged Alex to rally other students' support for her cause and lobby to effect change.

"If you could mobilize students to say that it's not fair to treat one student different, I think you would see a real difference," Bush said.

Afterward, Alex said she was not satisfied with the answers.

"They evaded the question," she said. "I'd have to talk with (Gov. Bush) one-on-one to ever make anything happen."

The hourlong discussion was the culmination of a morning's worth of work for the students. The 115 students, which included roughly two students from every middle school and high school in Hillsborough County, had brainstormed for several hours about school safety issues and then thought even harder to come up with solutions.

The students were brought together by two parent volunteers, Paulette Crawford and Valerie Adams, who forged the idea for the meeting as a means of giving students an outlet for their ideas about violence. Formally known as Hear Our Students Talk, or HOST, the forum was also held last year, but without the governor and the attendant hype he brings.

"This shows the kids that their ideas won't be placed on a piece of paper and stuffed somewhere," she said.

Officials stressed the uniqueness of the event, saying it was unusual to have so many high ranking officials in one place willing to listen. Among those in attendance: Sheriff Cal Henderson, County Commission Chairman Pat Frank and School Board members Candy Olson and Sharon Danaher.

Officials were not alone in being taken to task by the students. Reginald Roundtree, a Ch. 10-WTSP anchor who served as moderator of the event, made the mistake of saying that before the Columbine massacre, no students had reported hints of the violence to come.

"I'm sorry to have to correct you," said Stephanie Demiari, an eighth-grader at Benito Middle School. "But there was a police report filed."

She was referring to the sheriff's deputy assigned to Columbine High School who was warned a year before the school shootings by the father of another student that one of the shooters had made and detonated pipe bombs and had threatened to carry out mass killings.

Demiari continued, "Students are criticized for not doing stuff. But when do tell, it's not acted upon by administrators and teachers."

Afterward, Demiari said she felt the panel had not heard her.

"I felt that they were almost mocking us and not understanding," she said.

But other students said their messages seemed to get through.

Patrick Carr, an eighth-grader at Burnett Middle School who spoke about the need for more teachers as mediators of conflict, said, "I thought they were very personal and I appreciated that."

Nicolette Dux, 12, of Booker T. Washington Middle School, said peer mediators need to be the same age as students seeking intervention. She said the meeting was a success.

"They seemed very understanding," she said.

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