Pinellas County's elected officials have been quietly discussing whether to place armed officers in the county's 72 elementary schools, but the idea is opposed by the county's largest law enforcement agencies, the Tampa Bay Times has learned.
A similar plan has been set in motion in Hillsborough County, where officers have been posted for the rest of the academic year at 150 elementary schools. The increased police presence is a response to a gunman's Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he has had private conversations with members of the Pinellas County Commission and Pinellas School Board about placing armed deputies throughout the school district. His answer to his fellow elected officials: 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, adding he shared his opinion with County Commissioner Ken Welch and School Board member Robin Wikle when they called to solicit his views. "I just don't think it's going to accomplish anything, other than create a 'feel-good' situation."
Gualtieri supports measures to improve the physical security of school buildings, such as equipping classrooms with doors that lock from the inside. But he characterized the idea of armed officers in all schools as an unwarranted reaction to Newtown.
Referring to other high-profile shootings, Gualtieri said, "What are we going to do? Put deputies in every movie theater because of what happened in Colorado, and on every fire truck because of what happened in New York?"
Gualtieri's views were echoed by St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, who said he does not consider armed officers necessary at elementary schools. Harmon said "money would be better spent" on other initiatives such as training for school staff and building security.
But Welch, who has a 10-year-old daughter attending a Pinellas elementary school, said the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary convinced him that additional law enforcement presence is a good idea. Welch has met with the county administrator and county attorney to discuss what steps would be necessary to appropriate the money for it.
Welch noted that school resource officers are already posted in the district's middle and high schools. "I'm just speaking as a parent," he said. "I would feel better. It is another layer of protection."
Welch added, "In a violent society, with weapons available . . . I think we're not being realistic if we don't look at every measure of security. We're not talking about fortresses, but an armed, trained resource officer is, I think, a reasonable response."
The question of armed guards in schools illustrates the fault lines in the debate over gun violence. The proposal was at the core of a speech National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre delivered after the Newtown shootings.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," LaPierre said in his televised address, which rejected further gun regulation as an answer to the tragedy.
The divergence of opinions in Pinellas defies political stereotypes. Welch is a Democrat whose St. Petersburg district has struggled with gun violence. Gualtieri is a Republican and, as head of a law enforcement agency, cuts an unusual figure in declining the offer of extra funding to deploy additional deputies.
Welch insisted he is playing a supporting rather than lead role in the debate about sending more cops into schools — offering a hand in obtaining county funding for security if school leaders want it. But his statements in support of armed deputies and his exploration of funding options are perhaps the most concrete steps toward a Hillsborough-like initiative seen so far in Pinellas.
Welch said he has discussed this idea with School Board members Rene Flowers and Peggy O'Shea, describing them as "open to the concept." Wikle, whom Gualtieri said approached him about school security, was traveling and could not be reached for comment. Gualtieri said he had the impression that Wikle was sounding him out rather than arguing for a specific plan.
On Tuesday, the School Board met for the first time since the Newtown shooting. Members discussed potential school security measures, but no firm proposals were advanced. No one mentioned the back-channel discussions about sending armed officers into the schools.
O'Shea said after the meeting that she hasn't made up her mind about Welch's plan, which she acknowledged he had discussed with her.
Flowers also confirmed Welch had called her to talk about his plan and said she would "entertain" the idea of armed officers at all elementary schools, perhaps only at the beginning and end of the school day.
The armed presence envisioned by Welch would require county funding, she said.
"Money's going to be the issue, but also (whether) this district thinks this is the direction we want to go in," Flowers said.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is spending $1.9 million to deploy deputies to 92 of Hillsborough's 150 elementary schools, according to Hillsborough sheriff's Lt. Chad Chronister. The rest are being staffed by officers from the Tampa Police Department.
However, on Tuesday night the Hillsborough School Board voted down a proposal by superintendent MaryEllen Elia to place armed officers in the county's elementary schools next year and beyond. The program would have cost $4.1 million next year and $3.7 million each year after that — costs that concerned some School Board members.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said he can see the points made by Gualtieri and Harmon, though he reached a different conclusion.
"I understand both sides of the issue. It's a lot for an individual law enforcement agency to do," Gee said, adding that he wanted to allay immediate fears of a copycat killer in the wake of the Newtown shooting. "We were trying to buy a little time where there was going to be a little discussion and take a little of the pressure off," he said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.