Karen Carpenter: A focus on student safety, education as Manatee schools open

August 18, 2013 

On Monday, nearly 45,000 children head off for the first day of school. Some will be picked up and delivered by Manatee district bus drivers whose buses are well stocked and equipped, and whose enthusiasm for their young charges was readily apparent at last week's transportation awards meeting.

Many were recognized for their long years of service and for their safety records. A good number are retirees, fully able to command those buses.

They have been practicing their routes and student safety procedures, which includes waiting for a parent or adult to receive a young child at the end of the day; this I personally observed on my street.

In 1939, bus colors in North America became National School Bus Glossy Yellow because of its visibility. Despite the highly visible color, flashing lights and safety arms, last year some distracted drivers somehow "missed" seeing our buses and caused an accident or didn't stop for students. Please do not be one of those drivers; our students deserve your attention on the road.

Other safety measures in place at our schools are also important, for if students are not safe, they will be unable to learn, dream and achieve. These include compliance with the Jessica Lunsford Act, requiring background checks for contractors and those with access to schools and students. Even our new internal audit firm had to be fingerprinted this past week.

School safety procedures are in place to ensure readiness for all sorts of emergencies. It is no coincidence that nearly half of our schools qualify to be county shelters during hurricane evacuations.

We collaborate actively with law enforcement, the Bradenton Police Department, Palmetto Police Department and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. Student safety needs an interagency effort, not just the schools.

The tragic consequences for young students who witness violence or who are victims directly needs our combined efforts and alertness. The more eyes and ears, the better.

Access to individual schools follows specific protocols and safeguards. We as citizens, grandparents, parents, or volunteers, need to notify the school principal if we see a gate or door inadvertently left open.

In 2012 the Florida Legislature passed one of the most far-reaching child protection statutes. The Protection of Vulnerable Persons Act ( HB 1355) requires the everyone (all of us) with even a suspicion of child abuse and neglect call the state hotline: 800-962-2873.

Just as keeping children safe -- on buses, in schools, and in the community -- requires the efforts of everyone, our teachers cannot do it all. Parents, volunteers, business partners, community members are all needed to help shape the future of children.

Preparing 45,000 students for the first day of school is a big and expensive job, with backpacks, shoes, clothes, school supplies. A plethora of community agencies and churches provided special programs and events, including the Kiwanis of Bradenton Christmas in August for homeless children, offering backpacks, dental exams, hair cuts, clothing and shoe gift cards. Rotary, churches and other service clubs all donated thousands of backpacks.

Our classrooms and teachers are enhanced this year by generous gifts just awarded by the Manatee Education Foundation; the excitement was high as they accepted their checks. Many already have volunteers helping out, like The Reading Ladies at Abel Elementary. The Reading Pals program is expanding from one elementary school to four and needs 200 volunteers. Manatee County is one of 10 counties to receive a grant from the Publix family charities, with oversight by the United Way; Sandra Holmes is the contact at United Way. To volunteer, contact her at 941-567-4085 sholmes@uwmc.net

Business partnerships also assist schools with many different types of assistance; the Manatee Chamber of Commerce is an invaluable partner. Business leaders and projects will be recognized on Sept. 6 at Freedom Village.

It takes a village to raise a child, with much effort to keep all children safe and help them learn, dream and achieve. We are all here to focus on the children. There is a way everyone can help and be involved. Please join us so that this school year is the most successful one of all.

Karen Carpenter, is chairwoman of the Manatee County school board.

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