Weekend interview: Hillsborough Schools Security Chief David Friedberg
If you asked David Friedberg before Dec. 14, he probably would have told you the Hillsborough County school district was doing all it should to protect its 200,000 students and 25,000 employees. But attitudes changed after Newtown, and Friedberg’s was no exception.
Now the district’s chief security officer is among those who want to see an armed and trained first-responder at every school. It’s not just about mad gunmen, he said, emphasizing such occurrences are extremely rare. But schools face other sensitive and volatile issues, from custody battles to natural disasters and medical emergencies. Friedberg and his staff prevent bad things from happening and if they are doing their job right, the rest of us never hear about them. Here’s some of what he had to say during a recent interview with Gradebook.
Q. What can you tell me, about the history of your department?
A. The department was formed in the 1970’s with just a few folks. It was involved primarily with armed response, or response to schools before the alarms were put in. In 1993, when I arrived, we had 37 officers. We had a police officer, Tampa police or the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office, and one from Temple Terrace, in every one of our middle and high schools. In the 70’s they were in the high schools and in the 80’s they moved to the middle schools. In the mid 90’s, we added had a couple in elementary schools. The primary focus was resource protection. As time went on we expanded the role. Today there are six secondary schools with our officers to augment those either through Tampa Police Department or the Sheriff’s Office. We’re now at about 114 staff members and that includes 96 armed folks and the remainder are clerical or communication. We’re a 24-hour operation. We have 32 patrol officers on three shifts, each with its own primary focus. Our day shift responds to calls for service from primarily elementary schools from suspicious persons seen near campus to an irate parent to a school needing to implement a lockdown due to a neighborhood issue that could potentially affect the campus – just to name a few. In the afternoons we deal with missing children, or children that have been dropped off or for whatever reason didn’t go straight home. In the early afternoon we have bus ramps for the magnet schools, that we control; and afterwards, calls for service from the schools. Trespassers and those kinds of things. The midnight shift is primarily burglar and fire alarms. Every one of our school sites has an alarm system and we monitor them 24-seven.
Q. What is your budget?
A. Almost $4.4-million, salary and operations.
Q. And what is your background?
A. Retired military, I spent 22 years in the Air Force as a security police officer, both enlisted and commission – almost 42 years in uniform.
Q. And I’m assuming some of the growth in your department came with the magnet programs?
A. A small number of officers were added as a result of the magnet program, but the majority of the growth came as a result of school sites requesting our officers – from the alternative education programs to 19 elementary schools to staffing security at district work sites. We have approximately 8,500 [magnet] kids that come from all over the county, and all different ages, and we have to make sure the buses get out safely as well. But you know what? It runs so incredibly smoothly, it really does. When you do the right training, when you set the right standards, it’s second nature.
Q. Your guards. Who are they? Where do they come from? What kind of training do they get? And how are they different from law enforcement officers?
A. The folks that we hire have a security, armed security, police, or criminal justice education background. At a minimum they need to have two years of armed security. They range from college graduates who majored in criminal justice to folks that are 28, 30-year Tampa Police officers and everything in-between. We have former and retired military, we have former and retired police officers, correctional officers. We have people who taught and decided they wanted to this instead and people who sold cars and also worked security.
Q. Do you get people who maybe tried to be a Tampa Police officer and that was not really a good match?
A. I would not say it that way. I have had some that were police officers, but that job was just more fast-paced than ours would be. Some [applicants] are recommended because they were very good on patrol but you know what? They’re really not good with kids. You need to be good with kids. This is a specialty within our profession.
Q. There is a lot of sensitivity.
A. There is. What I say, is, ‘I will hire for attitude and train for skills.’
Q. So you are not a police department, but a security force.
A. There are some similarities but also a lot of differences. We don’t arrest, when you’re taking someone’s liberties. We may detain folks. But yes, we each have our own roles. I’m proud that we have an incredible working relationship with the Tampa Police, Plant City, Temple Terrace and the Sheriff’s Office. We train side by side with the Sheriff Office and Tampa Police.
Q. Tell me more about the training. Do you have your own police academy?
A. We have our own training program. No matter what your background, you go through our orientation.
Q. How many hours?
A. All total, when you include the field training it’s 240 hours. We have the “D” license, which is a guard license, and a “G” license, which is a gun license. But it’s so much more than that. We teach about laws. We teach about how to de-escalate. We teach different techniques, processes and protocols. How to control a disobedient child. How to clear a room and move kids out. Because many kids react or respond when others are present. So you remove an audience.
One of my main comments is that there is a difference between criminal and stupid. There is a difference between criminal and childish. The vast majority of our kids are really not criminals, no matter what is made out to be believed through the media and access to information. Truth be told, most kids are great kids. And on occasion, in that 200,000 pool of children, some kids will do criminal things, but only a few. A few more than that do foolish things. Foolish doesn’t always mean criminal. It doesn’t mean arrest him, because arrest only lasts forever.
Q. And in the summer they train jointly with police?
A. Right. Myself and senior staff attend all the monthly meetings with Tampa and the Sheriff’s Office. We’re all family. We wear different uniforms, but we’re all in the same boat together.
Q. I’ve often wondered, at what point as a police officer do they need to respond if somebody has a bag of weed, or if a child describes something criminal that happened in the home?
A. If it’s criminal, it’s criminal. Dope may not be seen as violence, but it’s criminal. Other situations as well. Would it be information we would pass along? And the answer is yes.
Q. Although you would have to move cautiously in some situations, wouldn’t you? To make sure the child wasn’t making up a story?
A. Of course. My primary function is a child advocate. We are not the primary function of the school district, but a support function. It’s about education for kids, and our role is to help provide an environment where kids make mistakes, versus criminal. We do not make arrests. I do get asked to look at the arrest statistics, and how can we continue to reduce the numbers? “Appropriate consequences” is the key phrase we use. There are some of us that may not be in the position we are in, had there been police officers in the schools. I say, “let’s look at the totality of the situation.” There is a central funneling of information. The schools contact this office. They contact me. And at times there are things that are worth saying, “this 9-year-old who punched the teacher…?’’
Q. So you can sometimes prevent an arrest?
A. I don’t tell them what to do. But I have a voice and we have relationships, not just with the police, but with our own employees. And sometimes we can talk about common sense. We can say, “I understand where you’re coming from.’ And if they say, “I want to press charges,” we’ll never tell a teacher, “you’re never going to do something.” Sometimes we have to look at this from another perspective.
Q. And suggest alternatives to arrest?
A. If there are appropriate administrative steps. It could in-school suspension, detention, out of school suspension.
Q. What should the public be aware of, given level of anxiety after Sandy Hook?
A. I think our schools are safe. I think they’re well managed. I think there are many things that we’re doing that we’re doing very well, in regards to the safety and security aspects of schools, and training our staff. I was asked back in December, “are we doing everything we can do?” I would have said, up to that point, up to the Sandy Hook situation, “we’re doing what we can do to make our schools as safe as we can make them.” When I was asked shortly after, my response at that particular time was “no.”
It’s not the knee-jerk reaction to a Sandy Hook or a Paducah or a Columbine or a Springfield, Oregon situation. It’s not about the active shooter situation only. Those are so incredibly rare.
But I think we are at the point of, let the administration focus on what they do. Let others focus on what they get paid to do. I think there should be the safety person on the campus. It’s not just about carrying a gun, there’s so much more than that. It’s to ensure that our staff stays trained, to be kept abreast of the changes and kept current. That there is someone whose primary job it is solely focused on safety and security issues, not as a part-time and not as an afterthought.
Q. Dealing with situations like Custody Dad?
A. We have that every day. Ask our elementary principals. It has nothing to do with us. It has to do with, they’re angry at their spouse. Every single day.
Q. Why not just hire school resource officers (Tampa Police or Hillsborough Sheriff) for everything? Would that be more expensive?
A. A couple of things. Personally, number one, we’re a family. This is our sole focus, period. If there is an issue in town, if there is a domestic, if there is a bank robbery, that could take priority (for the SRO). This is what we do and we don’t get pulled aside for anything but the school district.
Q. And the cost of hiring all SRO’s?
A. It would be incredibly more expensive.
Q. So this is your top priority?
A. This is our only priority. This is truly a specialty within our profession. Our officers are great at listening. The one thing we have found from kids is, the reason they continue to come back and talk to us is because we listen. I’m saying our folks as well as the administration. If they come in and give you something and you don’t respond to it, they’re not coming back. The good news is that they do talk to us and they do trust us. The bad news is that these are things we would not want in a school. But, again, isn’t it great that somebody’s coming to us?