Making the Grade: Panel discusses the state of Suncoast schools

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SARASOTA - Since the awful events of December 14th, 2012 in Connecticut, school security has been at the forefront of politicians’ agendas, school administrators’ priorities and parents’ concerns.

All of them realize there is no one answer or one solution to keeping our children safe at school.

It is a layered and complex issue, and it's one we talked at length about with a panel of stakeholders recently. We invited them to our studio and each of them offered their own unique perspective and expertise.

Our panel includes Sarasota County School Superintendent Lori White; Principal of Emma E. Booker Elementary, Dawn Clayton; Manatee Education Association President Pat Barber; a Southeast High School student; and a parent with 5 children in our school system.

We first asked Lori White how safe our schools were. "Well you know, back in 2003 we had a nationally known reputable company come and do an analysis, site by site. They went and surveyed day and night, all aspects of school security and made recommendations, many of which were implemented. They came back in 2011 and were amazed at how different and how safe our schools are."

Parent Michelle McLean says she has no fears while dropping her 5 kids off at school each day.

Southeast Student Mackenzie Yaryura says she also feels safe on campus, but believes the biggest security threat these days at the high school level will likely originate from social media. "If a student sees something, feels something, with social media gets a text, a Facebook status, anything like that, they don't know to report it, they're not comfortable about reporting it, they're afraid if I say something what's going to happen to me."

In response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook, the Obama administration is pushing for stricter gun controls. Florida lawmakers are promising to make school security a priority in their upcoming session, and school districts are taking a hard look at their own security measures and how they can improve on them.

Pat Barber is head of the teachers union in Manatee County. She says teachers will do all in their power to keep their students, your children, safe. "I don't think anybody believed that something like this could happen in an elementary school, and it was a huge shock when it did happen. I think people are taking that possibility more seriously now and looking at what needs to be done. We don't people to be afraid, but we do want them to be aware and be prepared."

Our panel is concerned about attracting and retaining talented educators who have to deal with higher expectations and fewer resources. "We are seeing teachers retire and leave our profession very quickly in the last 3 years. We have seen the average teacher's stay 5 years; it had been 7, it's now 5," says Barber.

She worries about the challenge of finding the next generation of passionate educators. So does Southeast High School student Mackenzie Yaryura. “I don't have the answer on how to do it. If I did, I'd be a teacher. But they've said teaching is an art, and it is. And I think it's important to make sure we're encouraging our teachers to continue that art, so that we bring the best of the best to the classroom, so that we produce the best of the best for the future."

Barber says Florida's teachers are paid more than $6,000 less than the national average.

Michelle McLean is the parent of five school aged children. She shared the story of a woman she knows, a teacher, who is struggling. "I found out the other day that one of our family's beloved teachers, 2 of our kids have had her…she's a phenomenal teacher, bumped into her serving tables at night to make ends meet because she's a single mom. It's unconscionable to work as hard as these teachers work and truly dedicate their lives to our children's futures. And have to go and wait tables on the side to make ends meet is heart wrenching."

We are going to continue our special reports on education over the next month. Next Thursday, we're going to take a closer look at the issue of school security, including how the Columbine shooting influenced how schools are now constructed. We will also take an exclusive look at what's called the "Bunker", the nerve center for school security.