Friday, May 25, 2018
Education

Hillsborough superintendent wants armed guards in elementary schools

TAMPA — Hillsborough County schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia made her feelings clear Wednesday about armed security in the schools: She wants it.

Elia unveiled a plan worked out in partnership with area law enforcement agencies that would go far beyond the patrols already at elementary schools.

"It will mean that we have armed and trained personnel in all of our schools," said Elia, who has been working on the plan for weeks.

"We think this is important and we think it has to be done in a ramped-up way."

Subject to School Board approval on Tuesday, Elia wants to hire and train 130 security employees for elementary schools. They would complement 78 resource officers who already work at the district's middle and high schools.

The costs, including $1.2 million to make structural improvements to schools where access is not secure enough, would cost up to about $2 million this year.

Costs for 2013-2014, the first full year, would be $4.1 million, then $3.7 million each year after that.

"I wish that it wasn't necessary," Elia said. "The world has changed since I was in school and you were in school, and it changed again on Dec. 14 in Connecticut."

Hillsborough beefed up security in its 142 elementary schools just days after the shooting of 26 children and adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Other districts have moved more cautiously for reasons that include tight budgets and a reluctance to frighten children.

Pinellas schools officials are reviewing security procedures and planning changes, which superintendent Mike Grego intends to discuss in a scheduled meeting with school principals today.

In a recorded phone message, Grego told parents, "We are increasing the presence of Pinellas schools police officers at our schools."

That will be done by paying overtime to officers who currently work for the school system.

Officials are scrutinizing school safety plans, Grego said. At today's meeting, he will call for suggestions from principals as well.

Elia's plan in Hillsborough would enlist school safety expert Michael Dorn as a consultant, at a cost of $8,500. And the district would continue its crisis management training.

"This is a multifaceted approach," Elia said. "It's comprehensive, and it is going to cost money."

The 130 new security officers would be private security, not law enforcement.

"We're looking for retired law enforcement," said David Friedberg, the district's chief of security. "We're looking for a military background. And we're looking for young and inexperienced as well, that we can train."

Acknowledging that many issues surround school security, including mental health and gun control, Elia said, "No one expects any easy answers or swift, quick solutions. But we have to do what we can do."

Parents interviewed this week at schools have been unanimous in supporting the added patrols.

So far the costs have been absorbed by the law enforcement agencies. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office pays overtime. The Tampa Police Department uses existing patrol officers. In both cases, the officers are there primarily in the morning and at dismissal.

Under Elia's plan, the officers would be trained to work inside the schools as resource officers do, a job that includes crime prevention and education.

Some board members, who heard about the plan in phone calls from Elia on Tuesday night, said they would have liked to be consulted before the proposal got this far.

"I'm glad Mrs. Elia is going ahead and is being aggressive about this," said member Susan Valdes. "But I wish we had had a discussion, because we are going to have a discussion on the dais."

Cindy Stuart, who has expressed mixed feelings about patrols in elementary schools, said she would also have liked the chance to offer her input.

"It's the cart before the horse," she said. "It puts us in a position where if we vote against it, we are against school safety. And if we vote for it, we could be fiscally irresponsible. That's a lot of money."

Pinellas School Board members, similarly, want to consider the issue carefully.

Member Linda Lerner said the board should discuss it. Chairwoman Carol Cook supports Grego's full-scale review, but said the district must consider costs.

"We can't say that it's too expensive to save a child's life," she said. "But we really do have to look at the whole situation."

Elia said Hillsborough has the advantage of having long protected its district contingency account, now worth close to $100 million.

The first year's costs of $2 million would come from that account.

After that, Elia said, the program would be funded through the district budget.

She hopes to receive safe school funding from the state or federal government, although that isn't certain.

Board member Candy Olson said she is fully in favor of Elia's plan. "I wish we didn't have to do it," she said. "But better safe than sorry."

Six elementary school principals were at Elia's Wednesday news conference, all in favor of the idea and pleased with officers' influence at their schools.

"The school is calm, it's wonderful," said Carolyn Hill, principal of Just Elementary School, which is in a high-crime neighborhood and already has a resource officer. "I'm on board with it."

Bridgitte Kramer, president of the county council of PTAs, said the organization has not taken a formal position on the somewhat controversial issue of armed school guards.

"I personally, as a mother, have always felt secure in the schools," she said.

But she thinks Elia's plan is a good idea.

"I have talked to numerous parents, and they want that reassurance," she said. "It will make the children feel safe and it will make the parents feel safe."

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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