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More School Districts Leaning Towards Hiring Own Security

Mark Schreiner
WUSF Public Media
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is flanked by Hillsborough School officials and board members, along with deputies from the School District and other law enforcement officials, at a Thursday press conference in Tampa.

In response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that killed 17 people, Florida lawmakers passed a law in March requiring all schools in the state to have at least one armed and trained law enforcement officer or "school guardian."

Since then, officials from counties across Tampa Bay and the state have been trying to figure out how to handle the increased costs of keeping schools safe -- and many are deciding to hire their own officers.

Hillsborough County School Superintendent Jeff Eakins said Thursday his district is "light years" ahead of other districts because they've had their own school security deputy force for over 40 years.

Every Hillsborough middle and high school already has at least one officer assigned, but the school district will hire -- and the Sheriff's Office will train -- more than 100 officers and supervisors to cover a shortage in officers at elementary and charter schools.

Hiring security officers for ten-month jobs as opposed to bringing on new sheriff's deputies addresses the cost concerns.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins says they'll use the $6 million the county is receiving under the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. The state-funded program is named after a football coach who died protecting students during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Eakins said this allows schools to keep students safe, while still providing an education.

"We don't want to take resources from the classroom to do something else, so we want to prioritize both those things. With this plan, we're doing that," he said.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said they'd like to hire former law enforcement or military personnel. But the ideal candidate, he feels, is someone who puts student safety first.

"Anyone who has a passion for service, anyone who's willing to learn the tactics to become a tactical operator to, God forbid, ever have to put them in play, but know that they have the comfort of having this training to protect our young people, there's nothing more important," Chronister said.

During the two years it will take to fill the vacancies, Hillsborough deputies, along with officers from local cities and municipalities will cover the shortfall.

Other school districts in the Tampa Bay area are leaning in the same direction.

The Bradenton Herald reports Manatee County Commissioners turned down a request from the school district to help fund 35 additional SRO's. The district offered to pay for 70 percent of the cost for the upcoming school year, with the county picking up the balance. But commissioners voted 6-1 against that proposal.

Instead, the Herald reports the district plans to take a similar tact as Hillsborough and hire about 40 guardians through the Guardian Program. Those guardians will be hired by the school district and trained by the Sheriff's Office.

It's a similar story in Pinellas County, where everyone was in agreement about hiring new Sheriff's deputies to staff schools, but no one could agree on how to fund that.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that, instead, the school district will increase its own police force from about 18 officers to nearly 100 by the end of the next school year.

In Sarasota County, the decision-making process turned sour when school board member Eric Robinson criticized superintendent Todd Bowden's management style and exchanged text messages with Sheriff Tom Knight disparaging board member Shirley Brown.

Robinson and Knight have apologized, and the district is moving ahead with plans to hire its own police force. The new officers will staff the county's elementary schools in the 2018-19 school year, with current SRO's remaining in middle and high schools.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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