As Sarasota County Schools begins a $21 million effort to improve security at schools, officials must overcome unique challenges to keep students safe.
Pull into the public parking lot of Sarasota High, and the options for entry are, by design, limited.
But less than a football field’s length away is the campus’ unique security challenge, one that the school district and city officials are struggling to solve.
The right way to access the campus is to walk directly through a set of glass doors into the front office, where no one gets a visitor’s pass without an ID check and a good reason to be there. This is Sarasota County Schools’ safety plan at work — part of a six-year, $21 million effort to create single points of entry at each elementary, middle and high school facility.
Some of the work already done or planned involves simple things like gates, door locks and fences.
“We’re really working on welcome-ability, while being safe,” Director of Sarasota County Schools Planning Department Kathie Ebaugh said at a January public meeting.
But every school is different. In Sarasota High’s case, School Avenue, a public and city-owned street, runs right through the middle of campus. Gates block access on the north and south ends during school hours, but sidewalk traffic is free to pass through all day, mingling with students, faculty and staff.
“We will see pets, we will see babies in strollers, we will see people on mopeds — we’ve seen it all,” said the school’s principal, David Jones. Often, kids who are late for school get dropped off by their parents and run to class without checking in. Recently, someone who wasn’t a student came onto the campus looking for another student with whom he wanted to fight.
“It creates a very difficult scenario,” Jones said. “If you’re sitting in my chair and you want to keep these kids safe … we no longer live in an era we can stick our head in the sand and say ‘it’s not an issue, you’re overblowing it.’”
In a post-Columbine era, Jones said, knowing who enters and leaves campus is a critical part of school security. According to Assistant Superintendent Scott Lempe, the public road that moves traffic through the campus is the biggest problem in the district.
Lempe said all schools in the district can be lumped into two categories, based on design. Campuses such as Riverview High School are newer and were designed with a central courtyard, buildings facing inward and often are already fenced or have fewer open points of entry. Older schools were built with more open plans and face bigger security challenges.
“We live in a place where the weather is beautiful, so kids should be outside and enjoy the weather — it makes perfect sense until you put the world of school safety and security on top of it,” Lempe said.
The process of updating the physical facilities at each school started last year, and will continue for five more. A district spokesperson said the upgrades at some schools are nearly complete, but many are still in the process. Each school poses its own challenges and strengths that have to be evaluated.
“Education first, safety always,” Lempe said. “While we have your babies, we’re thinking about the very real responsibility of keeping them safe.”