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District: With anxieties high in schools, balancing calm and concern proves precarious

It’s a very fine line.

Citrus County School District educators want students to feel safe and secure in their schools. So they conduct drills, keep close watch on students exhibiting mental illness issues, and seek to keep the lines of communication.

They want students to feel secure — not scared.

“That’s a very tricky and delicate balance,” Jonny Bishop, executive director of school support services, said Wednesday.

And school district officials, including Superintendent of Schools Sandra “Sam” Himmel, say that balance is becoming even more precarious in the wake of the school shootings in South Florida two weeks ago.

About nine or 10 students have been suspended in the last week for starting rumors on social media of potential violence in local schools, Himmel and top officials told the Chronicle Editorial Board on Wednesday.

Other rumors are spread somewhat innocently: A social media outbreak said Lecanto High School was locked down with an armed person on campus. When the district called the school, no one knew anything about it.

They soon learned the culprit: “LHS” as described online actually referred to Leesburg High School — but someone assumed it was Lecanto High and spread the rumor to others.

Himmel last week sent a recorded phone message to parents saying they’ll be told if something is actually taking place at a school. She urged parents to ignore the rumors and not give in to spreading them.

Himmel and Bishop said the key is building relationships in the schools between educators and students.

“Everything is about relationships in our schools,” Bishop said. “A large majority of our kids have a great relationship with staff — 99 percent of our intelligence comes from those kids.”

Himmel said legislation offered by Gov. Rick Scott and leading lawmakers indicate that each district will have sheriff’s resource officers in every school. Currently, school resource officers are assigned to middle and high schools, but elementary schools share SROs.

She said the district is concerned about remarks Scott made in reference to districts “hardening” schools so they are bulletproof.

Scott, she said, has suggested school districts freeze their capital outlay funds to pay for school hardening.

“That is a huge concern,” Bishop said. “Does that mean when the air conditioning goes down we don’t fix them?”

Bulletproofing windows and walls, he said, would cost millions of dollars.

“That’ll take every penny we have and more,” he said.

Himmel said she isn’t convinced the solution is solely within the confines of the school building, noting athletics and other school activities mean a fairly constant public presence on campus.

“Everything we do minimizes any future event,” she said. “But if somebody wants to bring a gun on campus, they’ll bring a gun on campus.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.

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