Cost plays a role as Pasco votes to put armed security guards in elementary schools

The Pasco County School Board voted Tuesday to put armed guards in elementary schools instead of law enforcement officers, citing cost concerns. The guards will not have arrest powers, but will have direct communication with local law enforcement agencies. [Times (2017)]
The Pasco County School Board voted Tuesday to put armed guards in elementary schools instead of law enforcement officers, citing cost concerns. The guards will not have arrest powers, but will have direct communication with local law enforcement agencies. [Times (2017)]
Published May 1 2018
Updated May 1 2018

LAND O’LAKES — Armed guards soon will be stationed at Pasco County’s 47 elementary schools. And school district officials expect to tap into the state’s new "guardian" program to pay for the training.

The program allows some school employees, but typically not teachers, to carry guns on school grounds. District officials say they hope the Pasco guards will fall into that category under new state rules, even though their only role will be to provide security.

"I am not inclined to recommend that we arm district personnel that have other responsibilities in our schools," explained superintendent Kurt Browning. He called the model a hybrid between the guardian concept and a school police force using certified officers.

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New state law allows school districts to use any combination of law enforcement resource officers, school police and guardians to protect each public school. The Legislature adopted the requirement in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

Pinellas County has opted to go a different route than Pasco, with plans to put a fully certified school resource officer in every school. That will require an additional 156 officers to be hired by the district’s police department or local law enforcement agencies, including the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

No decision has been made in Hillsborough County, where lawyers for the district and the Sheriff’s Office are reviewing options, said John Newman, the school district’s chief of security.

Newman said he thinks using district security officers as guardians is a good idea. The hard part, he said, will be hiring as many as 100 new officers by the first day of school to meet the need. "Nobody’s going to get it done by Aug. 10," he said.

In Pasco, School Board members made clear they preferred adding trained resource officers from the Sheriff’s Office and local police departments to cover the elementary schools, which have not had dedicated officers.

But "we are limited by funding, time and availability," said board member Colleen Beaudoin, signaling her support for the proposal.

The security guard model provides the needed services for elementary schools, while costing the district several hundred-thousand dollars less annually, board members said.

The guards will not be law enforcement officers, but will have direct communication with the departments. They will not have arrest powers, either.

"We really don’t need to arrest elementary students. So I think that is fine," board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said, noting the guards will be incorporated into the schools to have more interaction with students and staff.

The plan, similar to one being incorporated in Duval and Polk counties, still will have a funding gap of about $550,000, chief finance officer Olga Swinson said. But the potential of using a share of the $67 million state guardian funds "obviously helps us," Swinson said.

After the board voted unanimously Tuesday to approve his plan, Browning said the district soon would advertise the $20-per-hour guard jobs. He said the Sheriff’s Office aims to begin the 132-hour required training on June 4.

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"We’re going to be ready to rock and roll" by the time classes resume in August, he said.

In other business, the board delayed action on proposed changes to west-side middle and high school attendance zones.

The district has worked for two years to create a plan that would ease crowding in over-capacity schools and fill seats in under-used campuses.

Because the process faces a legal challenge, Browning withdrew his recommendation from consideration until after an administrative hearing takes place. The hearing is scheduled for May 17.

Times Staff Writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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