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Audit questions effectiveness of Pinellas school district's police force

It's a picture of a police department stretched thin. Of too few officers to deal with disruptions and complaints. Of too little communication that has spawned a disconnect between officers and their bosses.

A recent audit of the Pinellas County School District questioned the effectiveness of its police force. It recommended the School Board review whether to even have the force of more than 30 sworn officers and civilians. If the board decides to keep it, the report said, then it needs to support it properly.

"The Police Department does not appear to have the manpower to realistically perform all police functions through the district, and depends heavily on other law enforcement agencies," the report found.

The criticisms of the police agency spill over into the larger problems involving delinquency and schools. The Legislature took up the issue with no resolution. And one St. Petersburg City Council member essentially accused the school system of pawning off discipline problems on the city police.

The school system has had its own police for several decades, but also pays several local law enforcement agencies to fill out the security needs.

Having a district police department allows the schools to have officers who are used to dealing with youths. Other districts, such as Duval and Miami-Dade, have police departments, though some districts use other security services.

The Pinellas school system pays $1.6 million to local police agencies that employ school resource officers of their own. The district's police department fills the gaps because not every police agency in Pinellas provides school resource officers.

But the school district's audit highlighted how striking a balance between what merits school discipline and what deserves police action is a chronic problem. The audit also raised questions about the department's inability to respond to disruptions on school buses. Department statistics also weren't available to measure performance because the district lacked the right computers to compile them.

District officials say they are reviewing the findings but wouldn't respond specifically yet. School Board member Carol Cook said "many other things rise to the surface" in the audit's recommendations before the board should discuss police and security.

This month, however, St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton pulled an otherwise routine change to the city's agreement to provide school resources officers off the council's consent agenda. Instead, he quizzed city police officials over their roles at schools.

Recounting his driving past raucous school yard fights, Newton warned that misbehavior ought to be handled within schools, not pushed to the police and justice system to handle. "Because of their budget shortfalls, which are like ours, I don't want them supplementing or using our police force," Newton said.

A seven-year review by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice in November showed school-related cases of juveniles in the justice system declined 42 percent across the state.

While Pinellas' numbers fell, too, the district did have a higher rate of juvenile cases involving schools in 2010-11 compared with its large-district peers.

The rate of school-related referrals in Pinellas was 17 per 1,000 students. The state average was 12.

Pinellas authorities say the rates have declined, including a 11 percent drop so far this school year, according to a January preliminary report.

The state's figures also may obscure efforts to give youths second chances, said school officials who insist they try to keep kids out of court action as much as possible. Programs allow authorities to divert first-time offenders so they avoid having Department of Juvenile Justice and court records.

If authorities decide to let a student avoid the courts several times and the youth lands in the justice system later, it may show up as a first offense in the system, said school district police Chief Tom Gavin.

"To just look at that data, it doesn't give you the full picture," Gavin said.

However, Newton noted that 120 to 150 city youths are sent to the county Juvenile Assessment Center each month. He said he was still unsatisfied after the city police reported they took only 178 middle and high school students total there so far this school year.

Newton said he is worried that youths will unnecessarily be saddled with records that will haunt them later.

The state's seven-year study showed two-thirds of cases landing in the juvenile system in Florida last year involved misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct. The rate was 62 percent in Pinellas.

In St. Petersburg, however, city police officials told the council they have a duty to uphold the law when appropriate, and when victims deserve a day in court. They have discretion — within limits.

"At what point is it beyond a minor issue? How do I tell you that from up here and take out your professional judgment?" said council member Steve Kornell, a school social worker. "I don't think I can do that from up here."

A bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday would have eased zero tolerance requirements and pushed schools to handle "petty acts of misconduct" without law enforcement. But the session ended Friday without the House acting on it.

School district officials have discussed how to better define the line between police and district responsibility, Cook said.

But in a time of scarce funding, the district already supplies up to 19 school resource officers in schools where local cities do not provide them.

Diversion programs for students, such as juveniles who bring alcohol on campus, seem to work, too, she said.

"Our biggest goal is to make sure our students and our staff are safe," Cook said. "You can't teach them when they're not safe. And if they're fearful when they're in school, then it takes a little edge off their ability to learn."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DeCampTimes.

Audit questions effectiveness of Pinellas school district's police force 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 11:36pm]
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