Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

Board says no to superintendent MaryEllen Elia's plan for armed school guards

TAMPA

They wanted more time. They worried about cost.

They were offended that school superintendent MaryEllen Elia forced the issue.

Members of the Hillsborough County School Board debated measures one-by-one in Elia's $3.7-million-a-year plan to beef up security at public schools in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders.

With the exception of an $8,500 contract for a security consultant — they gutted her plan Tuesday night, less than a week after Elia went public with it.

"We have to be very careful not to let one individual who did a terrible, terrible thing cause us to have tunnel vision with respect to student safety," School Board member Stacy White said.

The board did ask Elia to assemble a task force that would include consultant Michael Dorn, whom they voted to hire, and inhouse security experts to assess the district's needs.

But members made it clear to Elia that as it moves forward, they want to be at the wheel.

"You, getting out in front of this with a press conference, put this board in a really difficult position," Chairwoman April Griffin said.

Elia had proposed a multifaceted plan that would include the hiring and training of 130 personnel who would serve as both security guards and community police officers in the county's elementary schools.

Such officers now work in middle and high schools under contracts with the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

Elia's plan would have cost $4.1 million next year and $3.7 million each year after that.

She unveiled it at a news conference last week, saying she wanted the board and community to have something to think about.

"I wish that it wasn't necessary," Elia said then. "The world has changed since I was in school and you were in school, and it changed again on Dec. 14 in Connecticut."

After Tuesday's discussion and votes, she said she had always intended for there to be a vigorous discussion. She said she wasn't surprised at the outcome, as four of the seven members had tough questions for her when she told them about the plan. At the meeting, she thanked the board members for their input.

Some of it was harsh.

Member Susan Valdes accused her of political posturing. "Good PR campaign, superintendent Elia," she said. "Good job."

Member Cindy Stuart said Elia had put members in an awkward position. "Either way that we vote, we're going to be beat up about it," she said.

The member most supportive was Doretha Edgecomb, who cast the lone yes vote on one of the items in the plan.

"None of us believe that this is the ideal way to educate our children," she said. "But we can never put a price tag on the lives of our students or our employees."

Member Candy Olson, often a supporter of Elia's initiatives, started the meeting with a motion to consider the security plan line-by-line instead of in its entirety.

Later, she said she wondered if there might be other personnel who could be added to elementary school staff instead.

"I do not, for a minute, believe that the best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," she said.

Member Carol Kurdell said she was concerned that some of the money required would come from a district reserve fund.

She agreed schools need more guidance counselors, social and mental health workers.

White said that when the board discusses security, it should also address social issues such as the breakdown of the family and the excessive time children are exposed to violent television and video games.

"We should also introduce the children of this nation to the house of worship," he said.

The votes were not expected to change plans announced earlier by Tampa police and the Sheriff's Office to beef up their patrols at elementary schools until the end of this academic year.

But the votes underscored the division over whether armed security at elementary schools in the Tampa Bay area is a good — or a necessary — idea.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he has had conversations with members of the Pinellas County Commission and Pinellas School Board about placing deputies throughout the district. His answer: not a chance.

"Just to take that amount of law enforcement personnel and assign them to those schools because of what happened in Connecticut — I don't think it's prudent. I don't think it's necessary," Gualtieri said this week. "I just don't think it's going to accomplish anything, other than create a 'feel-good' situation."

Gualtieri's views were echoed by St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon.

Hillsborough School Board members said they have heard from constituents this week — and that their opinions were mixed. It was much the same Tuesday among speakers from the audience .

Parent Kelly Scott said, "I don't understand the rationale of keeping guns out of the schools by bringing more guns into the schools. I think that as a community, we can do better than that."

Tom Allyn, retired from both law enforcement and the military, said, "Our problem, which we are not addressing, is deranged people. Find ways to secure access. Spend the money on our teachers."

Principals Karen Bass of Bryant Elementary and Julie Scardino of Sulphur Springs Elementary spoke in favor of the security idea.

Sulphur Springs, which serves a high-crime Tampa neighborhood, is one of about 19 elementary schools that already have resource officers.

"He is not seen as an armed guard," she said. "He is a member of the school staff. He is a member of our community."

Times staff writers Peter Jamison, Curtis Krueger, Lisa Gartner and Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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