With Congressional committee meetings a week off, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis turned to the Pasco County School Board on Tuesday for some advice on improving school safety.
"I want to take your ideas, your suggestions to Washington with me," said Bilirakis, a Republican whose district includes all of Pasco County. "We need to do something drastic. We need to protect our children."
District officials made one thing abundantly clear: They want to put more resource officers into schools, particularly the elementary campuses that have none. Some spread out high schools could use more officers, as well, they said.
The officers provide a point of contact for students to report threats and catch them before they escalate, chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong explained.
"I would like to see more SROs, trained, on campus. I do not want to see our teachers armed," added board vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley, referring to a state bill that proposed to allow principals to designate certain employees to carry weapons on campus.
Board member Colleen Beaudoin added that, if the Congress can bring such relief, it should do so by adding more funding — not shifting existing revenue sources. Chief finance officer Olga Swinson said the cost to add officers to all schools without one would be about $4.5 million.
Bilirakis called putting more SROs into schools a "no brainer" and said he would have staff look into making it happen. "That's realistic," he said.
He also said he would explore getting the district a federal grant to pay for added mental health training.
"Obviously, we want to keep these schools safe, make them safer," Bilirakis said after the workshop. "If we're not safe, nothing else matters."
Superintendent Kurt Browning said his administration has been working to improve school security in the days after the Parkland school shooting that killed 17.
Browning said he has directed all school gates and classroom doors to be locked during school hours: "We put locks on those doors for a reason. It is a small price to pay in order to keep students safe."
He said a team also is assessing other school safety needs, whether fences or entry changes or whatever, to determine what next steps to take. Many parents, students and residents are submitting ideas, as well, he noted, and those are being considered, too.
One problem Browning specifically pointed to was the "reckless" use of social media to make threats against schools. He said the district and law enforcement had investigated 19 so far, all unfounded, and some arrests had been made.
He reiterated that making a threat against a school is a felony — even if a kid was only joking.
"Guess what? It is too late when you tell an armed sheriff's deputy at your door and your mom and dad want to know what's going on that you've done something stupid," Browning said. "Kids just don't understand."