Thursday, November 15, 2018

School is in session and — Surprise! — Florida politicians still haven’t learned

From the very beginning, the Legislature’s school guardian program seemed like a sleight of hand. A diversion to shift accountability for student safety from Tallahassee to local school districts.

Lawmakers did not want to shoulder the cost of putting certified cops on every campus, but they also did not want to appear utterly useless. So they came up with a moronic plan to demand armed personnel at every school, while asking districts to solicit volunteers among non-teachers to fulfill this low-funded, gun-toting mandate.

School superintendents told them it was a bad idea in the spring. And now that fall is about to arrive, the proof is in the numbers.

And yet legislative leaders continue shoveling this writ.

"This is another example of the philosophy in Tallahassee that we always know best,’’ said Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg. "If we were doing our jobs, we’d do more listening and less directing.’’

The issue came up again recently because school districts used only $9 million of the $67 million the Legislature set aside for the guardian program. Gov. Rick Scott suggested the leftover money be used toward hiring more cops, also known as school resources officers, or SROs.

Scott’s suggestion was immediately met with pushback from incoming Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva. They suggested the guardian program just needed a little time to catch on.

This is known as selling the lie.

The guardian program, as originally envisioned by the Legislature, is a flop. Very few school boards have opted to put guns in the hands of volunteer employees.

So far, 22 districts have requested guardian funds, but most explicitly stated they did not want administrators, librarians or other traditional school personnel to be armed. Instead, they have used the money to pay for the training and hiring of security guards.

Of the state’s 25 largest districts, it appears only Lake County has allowed volunteer employees to be armed.

Based on enrollment numbers, counties requesting guardian funds and existing school board policies, no more than 3.7 percent of the state’s students are in schools with anonymous, armed employees. And that’s probably inflated because those districts have school resource officers on most of their campuses, and so any volunteers are simply backups.

Instead, many districts took the ill-conceived mess handed to them by the Legislature and fashioned their own plans. Some simply bit the bullet and paid for more certified cops and SROs. Others have supplemented their SROs by hiring mostly retired cops and military personnel to be security guards.

Those guards do not have the power to make arrests, but their sole focus is keeping children safe.

Hillsborough County had been using a similar plan for years, which made district security chief John Newman a popular man this summer.

"My phone hasn’t stopped ringing,’’ Newman said. "I had a lot of people saying, "I need to know how you set this up.’ It was kind of nice that our idea has been validated.’’

On the other hand, the numbers say the Legislature’s idea has been invalidated.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers need to reverse their law — some small counties did take advantage of the program — but they do need to be more honest and realistic about future funding.