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Tampa Bay Leaders, Residents Talk School Violence During Town Hall

Community leaders talked about putting an end to school violence at a town hall in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood Thursday night. The Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists hosted the event in response to the Parkland shooting last month that left 17 people dead.

Dozens of residents came for the panel discussion, which featured speakers including former Congressman David Jolly, Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins, St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway and others.

Some panelists stressed the importance of strong teacher-student relationships and the need for tighter school security, including placing more armed school resource officers on campuses across the state.

During the audience Q&A, one woman who runs a campaign to pay off overdue lunch balances in local schools complained that she's she visited 16 Hillsborough schools and was only asked to show her ID at three of them. District Superintendent Jeff Eakins says her concerns highlight the need to station security officers at the entrance to every school.

“That helps the people who really have the job of being a secretary who are answering the phones and doing all the other things that they’re multi-tasking every day to do – to take that burden off of them because they truly are the front lines right now in many of our particular schools,” he said.

Still, Eakins said Hillsborough already spends about five times more funding on security than it receives from the state for that issue. He acknowledged new laws passed by the Florida Legislature this week would increase funding for school resource officers and mental health services in schools, but he still expects there could be funding and capacity challenges once the time comes to implement these changes.

While many in the audience said boosting security in schools is important, the consensus was that it doesn't mean much if assault weapons are still accessible.

One grandmother of a Tampa elementary school student said without stricter gun control, the school safety measures just create a false sense of security for families.

“I don’t want to ‘feel good,’ I don’t want those AR-15’s out there,” she said, earning a round of applause from the audience.

Another woman said the National Rifle Association is partly responsible for the recent violence in Florida because of the influence its donations have on lawmakers.

Former Congressman David Jolly urged the audience to channel their anger into votes.

"The reality is you have some races where they're [NRA donors] putting in $3 million, and the people we should really hold accountable are the legislators who allow themselves to be influenced by that $3 million," he said.

Jolly said while it’s understandable for people to be frustrated with state lawmakers, he credited them with taking more action than representatives on the national level.

“We should encourage what has happened in Tallahassee,” he said. “Those are advancements to say, ‘Let’s raise the age [to buy guns] from 18 to 21,’ those are advancements to say a three-day waiting period, those are advancements to say [let’s put] hundreds of millions of dollars into mental health and into our schools. What we wrestle with is whether that is enough.”

People also spoke out against arming some teachers and other school employees, another component of the legislation passed this week.

Jeff Eakins reaffirmed what he has said in the past that Hillsborough County will not be arming any of its school staff members, save for designated security officers. He says that decision is in line with what students, parents and teachers have expressed to him about their opinions on the matter.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Holloway said one of his major concerns about arming school staff is that it would make it harder for police officers responding to a crisis to spot the attackers, as they would have to look at multiple people holding guns in the heat of the moment and discern “who the bad person is and who the good person is.”  

Holloway says schools in his area will further discuss their stance on the issue next week.

“I pray to God they say no,” he said.

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