Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

Pasco elementary schools won't have armed deputies

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County elementary schools will not have armed deputies on campus when students return to classes on Tuesday.

The officers' presence in the days after a shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut was a short-term measure designed to alleviate fears in the immediate aftermath of the incident. But neither the school district nor the Sheriff's Office have the resources to continue staffing the county's 46 elementary schools with deputies.

"It would pretty much decimate our local patrol function," Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said. "We have to focus our efforts where the crime is actually occurring."

Deputies and specialty unit officers will pay added attention to school zones within their regions as time permits, and respond to threats as necessary, Doll said.

School district officials had other concerns about placing resource officers with guns in the elementary schools, where the district traditionally has not assigned them. At most, the district has based six SROs in elementary schools on a rotating basis — primarily serving schools with students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders — but scaled back that number amid declining finances.

They did not want to suggest that the schools are unsafe and requiring armed guards, and they also did not want to create a false sense of security for children or their parents.

"No one can predict who is going to engage in this type of violence," assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said.

Gadd has met with Sheriff's Office leaders to review the schools' safety procedures, as well as recent vulnerability assessments, for any gaps or problems.

But schools do not have resource officers in middle and high schools because they think a shooter is going to walk in, Gadd observed. They are there to deal with other issues that relate to older students and generally do not crop up among the youngest students.

Land O'Lakes mom Wendy Seth was not satisfied with the official reaction.

Seth urged the district to maintain armed officers at all elementary schools during the School Board's Dec. 18 meeting, right after the Connecticut shooting.

"If someone has a Second Amendment right, then my children's human rights need to be taken care of," Seth argued.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said at the time that while safety is key, he did not like the message sent by keeping officers with guns in elementary schools. Seth, who has two children at Lake Myrtle Elementary School, turned her attention to the Sheriff's Office, sending emails pressing the issue.

"When it comes to the safety of children, we've got to find a place in the budget for it," she explained to the Tampa Bay Times.

Seth called it "deplorable" that the decision not to keep deputies in the elementary schools was based on staffing and dollars. She noted that other school districts, including Hillsborough, have found ways to continue to assign officers to elementary schools after winter break.

Hillsborough School District spokesman Steve Hegarty said the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department made the call to place officers at the schools. They will be committed through the end of the school year.

In Pinellas County, by contrast, the district will take steps similar to those in Pasco — reviewing emergency response plans and ensuring all employees follow them appropriately, but not maintaining a police presence at elementary schools.

"The biggest reason for resource officers is not for making sure people aren't coming in. It's to work with the students … and make sure they're on the right track," Pinellas School Board chairwoman Carol Cook said. "In elementary schools, we haven't found the need."

Gadd said he would watch Tallahassee to see if lawmakers or the governor add funding to the budget for elementary school officers, as some including Pasco Rep. Mike Fasano have proposed. At the same time, he suggested, the resolution might also involve other related issues as wide ranging as gun control legislation and mental health supports.

He expected the issue of elementary school resource officers to become part of the School Board's deliberations as it sets priorities for the 2013-14 budget.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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