Firm recommends armed officers in all Hillsborough elementary schools

TAMPA — The school security expert told them of a madman chopping off children's heads in an 18th-century one-room schoolhouse. He told them of arson at an Illinois Catholic school, and of a deranged school board treasurer who blew up a Michigan elementary.

And when Michael Dorn had spent eight minutes impressing upon the Hillsborough County School Board that people have been doing atrocious things to young students for centuries, a timer went off.

"That's the amount of time it took police to get to Sandy Hook," said Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International Inc.

The consulting firm, hired in January to review the school system's safety protocols, recommended Tuesday that Hillsborough station armed officers at every one of its elementary schools. The company also said the officers should be "properly screened, trained and supervised."

Like many others across the nation, the school system began scrutinizing its safety efforts after the December mass shooting of Sandy Hook Elementary students in Newtown, Conn.

Safe Havens' recommendation is in step with a proposal from superintendent MaryEllen Elia that in January put the cost of 130 new security officers at $700,000 for the rest of this school year and $4.1 million for 2013-2014. Only a small portion of the district's elementary schools currently have security officers, although all of its middle schools and high schools do.

The plan has the support of the Hillsborough County Elementary Principals Council, and several principals said Tuesday they are not equipped to be a first responder at their schools.

Joyce Miles, the principal of Oak Park Elementary, said she prays as she drives to the Tampa school every day. "And when I get to school, the first thing I look for is the car of my resource officer," she said. "That's how I know I have the support I need to get through the day."

It's not necessarily about the threat of a gunman, said Lewis Brinson, the assistant superintendent for administration. It could be a drunk relative who shows up angry, or any one of a million things.

"The one thing I regret is that I did not bring this proposal to you eight years ago, because the potential threats that the principals sitting behind me face every day is unbelievable," Brinson said.

As for the fear of creating a police state in schools, Dorn praised Hillsborough's existing training of school officers and the murals and other decorations they use to make schools feel like schools.

But cost is a steady concern. Safe Havens' proposal went even further than Elia's, urging the district to hire backup security for when the regular officers took vacation or called in sick. The firm also called on the district to hire a full-time supervisor to coordinate emergency preparedness efforts and adopt new safety drills.

"This board's responsibility too is the funding, (and) moving forward this is a lot of money," said School Board member Cindy Stuart. "My concern is we're going to have to give something up, and what is that something going to be? What are elementary school principals going to be willing to let go to bring this other person on staff?"

The board also voiced concerns that the cost of security officers would make it impossible to also explore adding mental health resources.

"I don't care if you have an armed person at the front of the door, if someone bad wants to do something bad they're going to be a bada- - and do it," said School Board member Susan Valdez, who asked what steps could be taken to train psychologists and guidance counselors. "I don't want to put all our eggs in one basket."

Elia said she was optimistic that funding for school safety would come through from the state and federal governments. She said School Board members had made it clear to her that they didn't want to use one-time funds for a recurring cost.

Dorn said several times that he was not trying to scare the school system. "If you told me you wanted to put armed officers in all your elementary schools because of Sandy Hook, I'd say that's not a good reason," he said.

Trained officers could take the lead if a tornado hit while children were on the playground, he said, or if a young student had a medical emergency.

Chairwoman April Griffin responded with exasperation.

"Bottom line is we wouldn't be sitting here if it weren't for Sandy Hook," said Griffin, who added that she was concerned about a knee-jerk reaction. She said zero-tolerance policies became popular after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, and put "a lot of kids behind bars for some pretty silly infractions."

"I know you didn't want to scare us, but that's what's happening in our world today. Everyone's scared," she said. "If you want to look at the definition of terrorism, we're altering our lifestyle because of what happened at Sandy Hook."

Firm recommends armed officers in all Hillsborough elementary schools 03/26/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 12:16am]

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