Thursday, May 24, 2018
Education

Security plan returns to Hillsborough School Board

TAMPA — A security plan that put Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia at odds with the School Board is back, but this time with a twist.

Instead of hiring armed security officers all at once for the district's 144 elementary schools — a number that will grow to 146 — the district would phase them in over four years.

The district would evaluate the system each year before moving onto the next phase, according to a plan discussed at a workshop Wednesday.

Some assistance would come from a federal grant that will help put 10 sheriff's deputies in areas around schools.

In addition, the district would hire and train 22 officers in the first year, 38 more in the second year, 40 more in the third year and 30 more in the fourth year, when the federal grant expires.

Middle and high schools already have resource officers and deputies under contract with law enforcement agencies.

Like the school officers who now work in 19 elementary schools, the new recruits would be armed but have no arrest powers.

Elementary principals endorsed the hiring of guards in an August letter to Elia. Those who have officers say they perform a variety of services that combine security with counseling and character development.

But, as in January, the plan did not get a quick endorsement from the board.

Member Cindy Stuart estimated the final price will be $4.5 million a year — more than what the board voted down in January, largely because of costs.

Chairwoman April Griffin, as before, said the plan fails to address a shortage of guidance counselors, career counselors, nurses and social workers.

"Right now it's not a balanced plan," she said. "It's very lopsided, very one-sided."

Susan Valdes asked for a full accounting of social services personnel at the schools, which Elia agreed to provide.

And Candy Olson, though insisting schools need help now and not in four years, also questioned whether some need psychological services instead of or along with security.

As before, Doretha Edgecomb endorsed the plan. "Although years have passed, I know what schools feel like on a day-to-day basis," she said, adding that she does not think security should be limited to 19 elementary schools. "I think we owe that same sense of support to all schools."

Carol Kurdell, who voted against the plan in January, said she has warmed to the idea, now that time has passed and it does not seem so reactive. "I've shifted positions on this," she said.

References were made to the backlash Elia incurred when she unveiled the January plan at a news conference flanked by law enforcement officials.

"If I over-reacted at the time, I'm very sorry," Elia told the board. "I over-reacted. I, like many of you, was caught up in a tragedy. What we're trying to do is move forward."

At one point, the board discussed polling principals to ask if they wanted officers or increased counseling staffs.

Joanne Baumgartner of Mitchell Elementary, one of several principals in the audience, said that would be a delay tactic when the answer should be clear.

"A hundred and forty-four elementary school principals signed a letter on our own, no pressure from anyone," she said.

"My guidance counselor is not going to be my first responder. My school psychologist is not going to be the first responder. That's what we're requesting."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356.

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