07 May Schools struggle to meet new law
TALLAHASSEE — Unwilling to turn school staff into gun-packing “guardians,” some officials across Florida are turning to a controversial alternative to meet the demands of a state law approved after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Read the full story here.
The Duval County School Board recently became the second in two weeks to approve hiring and training dozens of new, modestly paid, armed “safety assistants” to protect classrooms.
Polk County school officials endorsed hiring 90 “safety specialists” a week earlier — while a host of other counties are now considering the idea.
Lawmakers passed a bill this year requiring armed defenders in every school. Districts were left with a range of options for meeting that requirement, from hiring uniformed law enforcement officers to training volunteer school personnel — including some teachers — as “guardians” authorized to carry weapons on campus.
But hiring officers is expensive, and arming school employees is highly controversial.
The safety specialists are something of a middle ground. But the approach has its critics.
“The governor has stated that he believes sworn law enforcement should be the ones protecting our students,” said McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott.
Many districts, though, are scrambling to find the millions of dollars needed to meet the new state requirement. School leaders say the state did not provide enough new funding to cover the costs.
Volusia County also is considering hiring lower-cost, safety specialists. Alachua, Marion and many other counties still are looking to place more law enforcement officers in schools, while the Sarasota County School District is moving forward with plans to form its own police force.
Other counties talk of contracting with private security firms to enhance campus safety.
Major costs are tied to every approach — money districts say may come from cuts to other programs, reserves, or even property-tax increases.
“Everybody is trying to find some way to make this work and do it as cheaply as they can,” said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
But some worry about districts that opt not to rely on law enforcement on campuses.
“We understand the challenges districts face,” said Angie Gallo of the Florida PTA. “But we’re extremely concerned about the quality of applicants we may get for these low-paid positions.”
Cost, safety issues
Scott has set an added deadline, by demanding that districts say by July 1 whether they will participate in the new guardian program, which was created by the Legislature in the month after 17 were killed at the Parkland high school.
More than a dozen districts — representing the bulk of Florida’s 2.8 million students — already have openly rejected the idea of arming school staff. Four counties, Bay, Hendry, Suwannee and Okeechobee, say they will look to having armed staff volunteers at schools.
Districts leery of the guardian program face the question of how to pay for an alternative.
With Scott’s deadline — and the August start of school — edging closer, school leaders struggling for answers have come up with the new, lower-paid safety position.
In Polk County, these specialists would be paid $30,000 for 10 months work, and two months off in summer. Duval’s safety assistant post pays $20,600 annually, or $12.50 an hour.
“Would you put your life on the line for that?” asked Escambia County Sheriff’s Commander Dale Tharp, spokesman for the Florida Association of School Resource Officers.
Just as with the guardian program, the new hires will undergo extensive background screening and get between 144 hours and 160 hours of firearms training, defensive tactics and legal education.
Both Duval and Polk are looking to use the safety officers at elementary schools, while maintaining school resource officers, typically sheriff’s deputies, at middle schools and high schools.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says of the newly created position, “It’s not a bad gig.”
“We’re getting a lot of applicants,” said Judd, whose “sentinel” program with armed instructors and administrators at Polk County colleges inspired the Legislature’s guardian approach.
“If they don’t pass the screening or training, they won’t be safety specialists,” he added. “But I think we’re going to end up with well-trained guards at the right price.”
The Duval County School Board’s lone vote against the measure was Ashley Smith Juarez, who warned against the “risk of having an individual with four weeks of training on a campus.”
Many counties, including Alachua and Marion, which was rocked by a high school shooting last month that left a student wounded, still are looking to staff schools with officers.
The Sarasota County School Board agreed Tuesday to move ahead with plans to create a new school security department using sworn officers — similar to forces on many college and university campuses.
But Volusia County school officials said they may opt for hiring a new security patrol.
“We are forced to meet a challenge creatively, in an innovative way,” said Linda Cuthbert, chair of the Volusia County School Board.
“But we’re scrambling to come up with the right answer,” she added.
While the guardian program draws $67.5 million from the state, and a separate $97.5 million is available for more resource officers, most school officials say the money falls short of what’s needed to staff roughly 2,000 Florida schools that had no armed security before the Parkland shooting.
Scott has said unused guardian money can be pooled this summer with the resource officer funding to get more deputies in schools.
But law enforcement agencies across Florida say their struggle to find new recruits — and the lengthy training program for new officers — makes them unlikely to arrive until deep into the new school year.
The need to staff-up quickly has divided many counties, with some sheriffs balking at splitting the cost of security — which many formerly did — now that school districts are receiving additional state funding.
Sarasota County’s school security force grew out of such a conflict. Volusia County schools, though, expect to draw $2 million from the county for classroom security — money that hasn’t flowed that way since before the recession, Cuthbert said.
Despite the shortage of security money, the Legislature salted away $3.3 billion in reserves this year. Scott’s office also pointed to the more than $2 billion in reserves held by Florida’s 67 school districts in questioning the decision to look for a cheaper way to secure campuses.
Still, the governor said it’s up to the school districts — in cooperation with county law enforcement officials — to figure out how to meet the new security demands.
Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who helped craft the new law, agrees.
“The Legislature’s intent was to provide options for counties,” Galvano said. “The idea of a safety specialist fits into it.
“Now, a large number of applicants won’t make it,” he added. ” But those that do, well, they’ll be well-trained.”