School safety a top priority at district's communications center

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SARASOTA - Each Thursday this month, we'll be looking at several issues involving education and our schools. This week: school security.

When a heavily armed gunman walked into a Connecticut elementary school and spread death and heartache, our views on school security changed forever. We still don't know how the Sandy Hook tragedy will impact that issue. But we have a clear understanding of how another school shooting changed everything about keeping our schools safe -- including how we build them.

In April of 1999, two seniors at Columbine High School shot and killed 12 students and a teacher. The mass shooting sparked debate on gun control, bullying and violent video games. It also caused every school district in the nation to rethink school security.

Nearly 14 years later, in the geographic center of Sarasota County, sits a plain looking building painted in basic white. But inside sits a sophisticated nerve center of school security.

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year, workers at the district's communication center -- or "the bunker" as some call it -- are watching each and every school, and the more than 3,200 security cameras that scan them.

Darrell Reyka oversees safety and security in Sarasota County Schools. "We have the ability to view all of the cameras on our schools, each school can view their specific cameras. We visually verify these cameras on a daily basis to make sure they're functional, we also have an electronic system that monitors them and sends an alert if something electronic fails in a camera."

You read that right -- they check every one of those 3,200 cameras, every day.

From the bunker they also monitor the weather and can let a school know if there's danger nearby.

They even keep our children's food safe. The temperatures inside every school's freezer and cooler are on display. So if one breaks, it can be fixed and the food kept from spoiling.

All of this is because of Columbine. "If you go back 10-20 years, Florida schools tend to be a very open, college campus kind of environment, kind of enter the campus at any point you wanted to," says Reyka.

He says today, schools are built to be fortresses. Phillippi Shores Elementary in Sarasota is a newer campus, constructed with security in mind. There's only one entrance into the school, there are fences and locked gates surrounding it like a moat. And security cameras watch everything, like guards in a tower.

"To us, single point of entry is a focal point in how we keep schools safe." Principal Allison Foster just started giving campus tours to families for next school year. She says one of the biggest concerns for those parents is security. "And that's one of the big features that we share is how safe and secure the school is, that there's one entrance into the school through the main office."

And post-Sandy Hook, you'll likely see one more security upgrade in our schools: "One of the requests we've had from schools is ‘can't you give us something like a bank hold up button’, that basically allows us to, when conditions are appropriate, we can just signal somebody for help if I can't pick up the phone and call. That's something we're currently assessing right now, how do we do that."

The school districts in Sarasota and Manatee counties are both taking a fresh look at school security. In Manatee County, the district is working with local law enforcement to increase patrols at elementary schools and doing walk through safety assessments at every school, which are nearly complete.

But it's clear, post-Columbine, our schools are already much safer.