Thursday, April 19, 2018
Education

Pinellas sheriff says school resource officers are stretched thin

LARGO — As Pinellas School Board members began discussing the broad topic of how to reduce violence in schools, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri quickly focused the conversation on one concrete point: dollars.

Gualtieri, one of the people invited to come speak to the board, said the number of deputies in Pinellas schools has dropped sharply over a five-year period, but arrests in middle school and high school have gone up.

He cited these figures at a School Board work session on Tuesday:

In the 2007-08 academic year, the Sheriff's Office sent 33 deputies to 23 schools to work as resource officers. Resource officers get to know students and teachers and gather intelligence that can help them stop violence before it happens.

But by 2011-12, the Sheriff's Office had 13 deputies for 11 schools.

In that time, Gualtieri said, high school arrests went from 188 to 240.

In middle schools, the increase was even higher, with arrests going from 58 to 137.

"The biggest one was Dunedin Middle School," Gualtieri said, with an increase of 11 arrests to 59.

With fewer deputies at fewer schools in the sheriff's jurisdiction, the resource officers have less time to form the kinds of relationships they need to get tips about violence that may be brewing in schools.

He stressed that his staff does a great job, but said, "the deputies feel like they're stretched too thin."

Gualtieri said his cost for providing the deputies is $839,644. The School Board pays his office $591,000.

"I can't put any more resources that we absorb the costs of into the schools. I mean we're already paying more than what the School Board is paying, by almost a quarter of a million dollars."

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Police Chief Chuck Harmon also spoke to the School Board and agreed funding is an issue, but stressed their commitment to do everything possible to keep schools safe.

School Board members, who were meeting in a work session and not debating any formal proposals, said a lot of good things about the sheriff's resource officers, as well as others provided by the St. Petersburg Police and other agencies, and the school system's own officers.

But not one of them pledged to give more money to the Sheriff's Office, citing lean budgets. They did say it would be discussed in the regular budget process.

The board also heard Clearwater High School Principal Keith Mastorides describe what everyone agreed was a success story: the school and police response to an incident last month in which a 15-year-old student brought a gun onto campus.

"We had the campus locked down within 30 seconds," even though it was lunchtime, the most difficult time to secure a busy school, Mastorides said. Within nine minutes, he said, the lockdown was over and the weapon had been found. And no one was hurt.

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