TAMPA — They called her a hero. They gave her a plaque with a miniature school bus.
Celebrated by the Hillsborough County School Board on Nov. 12, bus driver Debra Dryden said this about the 9-year-old from Ippolito Elementary School whom she had caught six days earlier with a gun:
"I feel very sorry for this young man and what he's done. I'm sure he did not have complete comprehension of what he was doing and where it was going to lead to."
Alarmed by incidents such as the one on the Ippolito bus, board members are moving closer to adopting a plan to put armed security officers in the district's elementary schools.
Almost a year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in Connecticut, they are considering a plan that ultimately would cost $4.5 million a year.
That's roughly double what the district now contributes toward having Tampa police officers and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies in the middle and high schools.
And it comes on top of another $4 million the district spends on an in-house security department that already puts guards at 19 elementary schools.
The board has held workshops to discuss security since it voted down superintendent MaryEllen Elia's original plan to put guards in all elementary schools at once. But members spent much of that time listening to presentations from staff, law enforcement and a security consultant.
In recent months, members have met individually with Elia to discuss the new plan, which would spread out the hiring over four years.
The biggest issues are how the district would pay for the plan and whether it is doing all it can to prevent violence by staffing the schools with social services workers.
The district says it can raise some of the money through savings it realizes by freezing nonemergency hiring for months at a time.
To answer the second question, the staff provided detailed information on the way schools are staffed with psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers and nurses. It adds up to roughly $60 million in salary and benefits, reports show.
Board member April Griffin, who at first argued for a holistic approach that would include more prevention, said recently she is warming to the idea of hiring the guards. So did chairwoman Carol Kurdell, who voted against the plan initially because of funding concerns.
Candy Olson said the issue is complicated, with elementary schools needing much more assistance in responding to social issues they see in children and parents.
"There is a legitimate concern about a crazy person coming on campus with a gun," she said. "But the real issue is that every day, there are things that distract principals from being instructional leaders in their schools."
Still, Olson said, she now finds herself fully in favor of the security plan. She's come to appreciate the relationships that school resource officers build with children, she said. She realizes help is needed if a child runs away.
And she likes that the hiring will happen in phases.
"The proposal has evolved," she said. "We had some real conversations about our concerns. It's not just going to be a guy with a gun."
Unlike many other school districts, Hillsborough uses guards who are armed but who are not sworn law enforcement officers and cannot make arrests. That's possible because Hillsborough County does not have many law enforcement agencies, and the district has strong relationships with the ones it does have, said chief David Friedberg, who heads the security department.
The guards and their law enforcement counterparts seek to keep students out of the criminal justice system. "That's not just our philosophy; that's Florida statute," he said.
Critics of the plan, however, say the end result will be the same: more children disciplined, especially children of color.
"When you have a uniformed person, you are going to emphasize a law enforcement solution," said Michael Pheneger, Florida president of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They have a police mentality. And, frankly, you hire police to have a police mentality."
A retired U.S. Army colonel who also heads the Tampa ACLU chapter, Pheneger has been analyzing data on academic performance, graduation rates and school discipline of white, black and Hispanic students in Hillsborough.
"Minority students are underperforming, over-arrested and over-disciplined," Pheneger said. "If you have $4.5 million to spare, why not spend it on ways to improve the performance of minority students in our schools?"
Friedberg did not disagree that more arrests could result from increased security.
"When you have someone in uniform in proximity to other people, it certainly increases the likelihood of increased reporting of incidents," he said.
"This is one of the things we are going to look at as we move forward."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]