BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County deputies were rapidly deployed to the district's elementary schools in December after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
They were a calming force amid the fear of copycat attacks and rampant rumors flying on social media. Parents, teachers and school administrators all said they were grateful for the added presence.
As of the end of last week, however, the deputies were removed from the elementary schools. And there's no indication armed officers will return to the schools anytime in the near future, though some other forms of enhanced security are still in place.
Hernando schools superintendent Bryan Blavatt says he does not favor putting resource officers in the district's elementary schools. While it would be nice if the district could afford them, the officers do not necessarily ensure that a school is protected, he said. The district's middle and high schools all have resources officers on campus.
School Board members are not expected to debate the idea at their meeting next week, the first since the Connecticut massacre. Blavatt said he will not bring up the issue.
The idea of placing armed officers or guards in elementary schools has led to heated public debates across the Tampa Bay area in the wake of the shootings.
But Hernando County officials have largely remained quiet.
Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia proposed a $3.7 million plan that would beef up security and also place 130 armed guards in the county's elementary schools. The School Board gutted the plan at a meeting earlier this week.
In Pinellas, the heads of the county's largest two law enforcement agencies strongly opposed placing armed guards in elementary schools. A Pinellas County commissioner came out in favor of it.
Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis has taken a measured approach to the idea.
"I don't ever want to say adding law enforcement is not needed or could not be used, but at the same time I have to be sensitive to what the community wants," Nienhuis said. "I don't think that I'm in a position to know right now, exactly, because I don't think the emotions have died down enough to get a feel for what baseline the community wants."
That's what officials are trying to figure out — but mostly behind the scenes.
Nienhuis said he and his staff have met recently with school district officials to review their safety and security plans and look at what other security measures might be taken. They are in the process of evaluating long-term changes, which run the gamut from doing nothing to providing full-time deputies.
"We've talked about a lot of things in between," he said. "I don't think the long term has been decided."
In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, in addition to the deputies that were placed temporarily at Hernando elementary schools, the school district tightened some security measures — asking, for instance, that parents call ahead before coming to their child's school — and made sure that all existing policies were being followed.
"We wanted to make sure if anybody was even thinking copycat, they're not even going to try it," said sheriff's Lt. Michael Burzumato.
He said the Sheriff's Office was also dealing with a number of rumors circulating on social media.
Burzumato said keeping deputies in the elementary schools was not something the Sheriff's Office could maintain.
The deputies were assigned from across the agency, on a rotation basis. While it didn't cost the Sheriff's Office overtime, it did keep deputies from performing their normal duties.
Burzumato said the extra work forced deputies to play a little bit of catch-up with their regular duties.
"Eventually, they would get overburdened," he said.
While the deputies no longer are in the schools, enhanced security measures are still in place. They are just not as visible or prominent, said Sheriff's Office Col. Michael Maurer.
Nienhuis said there will be "beefed-up security" at the schools until officials make a decision on long-term plans, although he declined to elaborate, citing safety concerns.
"We're still working through it. But at the same time, we have a stopgap plan in place to make sure we have enhanced security," Nienhuis said.
Providing a deputy for each of the district's elementary schools would cost taxpayers roughly $1.1 million for the first year, Nienhuis estimated. That's the cost to both the school district and Sheriff's Office, as well as the initial costs for equipping the deputies with vehicles, weapons and the like.
Nienhuis said if money were unlimited, he definitely would want deputies in the schools, saying it would also give authorities the ability to respond more quickly to nearby incidents.
"This doesn't help the parent who is worried about their child, but I can tell you that schools are one of the safest places to be," the sheriff said. "Schools, especially elementary school, are very, very safe. Very safe. Especially with the enhanced security we've had since (the) 9/11 (terrorist attacks).
"I think parents can rest assured that, by and large, their children are very safe when they go to school."
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.