Thursday, January 18, 2018
Education

Florida lawmaker wants to put a school resource officer in every elementary school

With many parents still concerned after last week's mass shooting in Connecticut, state Rep. Mike Fasano hopes to ease their fears by hiring school resource officers for every Florida elementary school.

"They have been extremely successful in both middle schools and high schools," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "These men and women are trained, they're educated. They can identify when there's a problem. And they have a great relationship with the students."

Fasano sent Gov. Rick Scott a letter Friday asking him to include the measure in his proposed state budget. The move comes after officials from Broward, Orange and Leon counties made similar requests this week. In a letter to the governor, the superintendent and sheriff of Leon County called the benefits of such officers "incalculable."

But the officers won't come cheap.

Florida has just shy of 2,000 elementary schools. The salary and benefits for a school resource officer in Pasco is $71,000, according to a sheriff spokeswoman. Based on that figure — the salary is likely higher in urban counties and lower in rural areas — the total statewide cost could be nearly $140 million.

The cost for the first year would be even higher than that, to cover patrol cars and other equipment.

"We have a $70 billion budget," Fasano said. "I realize that $140 million in anybody's budget is a lot of money. But I think we have a responsibility to … never put a price tag on the safety of a child."

On Monday, Scott called on local school officials to review their security procedures to ensure they provide adequate protection for students. His office released a statement Friday that did not directly respond to Fasano's request. The statement called school safety an "important issue" and said the governor would work with lawmakers on their budget proposals.

Earlier this week, Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said he was hesitant to put officers permanently in elementary schools. He doesn't want to send the message that children are unsafe without armed guards on constant patrol.

But on Friday, Browning said he supports Fasano's idea after hearing from parents who asked him to reconsider his stance. "In light of what's gone on in Connecticut, and Columbine, and Virginia Tech," he said, "the age has changed."

With the Pasco school district facing a potential $23 million shortfall next year, Browning said state funding would be key. "It's something we have to budget for," he said. "You've got to do the right thing. You've got to make sure you've got the money to do it."

Other school officials were wary of the cost and said having an officer on campus doesn't guarantee safety. "At this point, I don't think we're prepared to go there," said Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt. "Having a resource officer is a wonderful thing. But it doesn't ensure anything."

Barry Crowley, Hernando's manager of school safety, added: "If we could afford it, I would like nothing better."

Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner said she hopes her colleagues take time during an upcoming workshop to "have some discussion about all suggestions, including … Fasano's." She said putting armed officers in elementary schools is a serious, complex issue, and she would like to consider it more before making up her mind.

Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the county's legislative delegation this week that the state needs to have a "serious discussion" about what it can to do support local security efforts.

Regarding Fasano's specific proposal, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said, "we would welcome that discussion, although I don't know if that is the answer."

Times staff writers Danny Valentine, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Marlene Sokol and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

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