Saturday, May 26, 2018
Public safety

Hillsborough to post law enforcement at elementary schools through school year

TAMPA — When Hillsborough elementary students return to school next week, they will be greeted by armed officers and deputies.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department will post one uniformed employee at each of the district's 150 elementary schools through the end of the school year in response to last month's tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The patrols will cost the Sheriff's Office $1.9 million in overtime pay, the agency said.

Hernando County also will post deputies at elementary schools for an undisclosed period of time, said spokeswoman Denise Moloney.

There are no such plans in Pinellas or Pasco County, illustrating a dilemma districts face as they weigh the benefits of reassuring parents and children against the financial and emotional costs of extra police.

"You cannot second-guess every thing that is going to happen," Pinellas School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said. Pinellas has resource officers in middle and high schools, but she does not believe adding them to elementary schools is necessary.

"You can do everything you can, and there are still going to be ways to get around it," she said. "I don't think we need to scare the little children."

In Pasco, the decision was largely about resources. Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said his department will continue to pay added attention to schools, but does not have the personnel to transfer deputies from their existing duties to cover 46 elementary schools.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said the district cannot afford full coverage, and he does not like the message it sends to have armed officers at schools serving the youngest children.

On Dec. 21, the National Rifle Association called for armed police officers in every school, its first statement since the mass shooting that killed 26.

That simply is not feasible for law enforcement, according to the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which estimated that such a move would require one seventh of the nation's 760,000 police.

"In a broader context, the idea that we are discussing having to put armed law enforcement officers in all of our nation's schools is a sad commentary on the state of affairs we currently confront," association president Craig Steckler said in response to the NRA's call for armed officers in schools.

"Law enforcement officers represent the last line of defense in a process that should properly be focused on prevention, threat mitigation, and preparation."

In Hillsborough, the Sheriff's Office said it will cost about $1.9 million in overtime pay to send a deputy to each of the 91 schools in the unincorporated county. Deputies will be present as students arrive and leave. The department is still determining what coverage it will provide during the school day.

The department hopes its presence will reassure parents and children and deter would-be troublemakers.

Meanwhile, Tampa police will send patrol officers to schools at the beginning and end of the school day. The officers will report to elementary schools during the day as time permits.

"When there's nothing else going on, schools are going to be one of the focus areas," said spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

Tampa police do not expect added costs because they will use already-working patrol officers.

The Sheriff's Office chose the overtime route because it does not have enough deputies to divert from other roles, said Lt. Chad Chronister, who is in charge of the sheriff's school resource program. Funding will come from the agency's budget, though it was unclear Thursday how it would become available.

"Every penny counts in budget-constrained times," Chronister said. "But, regardless, it's such a priority that the cost is secondary."

The move does not represent a ramping up of the school resource officer program. And, as districts around the country take similar steps, experts in school policing are concerned.

"We are all for properly trained, properly selected school-based police officers," said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which is based in Hoover, Ala. "It's not a job for every police officer. It really is a field of specialization."

An untrained officer might react inappropriately to a situation involving special education, he said. Or he might not have the temperament to build trust between young people and law enforcement, which is a key component of the job.

It's not yet clear whether Hills­borough's move is short-term or if it will lead to a broader expansion that would involve training.

The district now has a $2.67 million contract with the Sheriff's Office to cover 46 high schools and middle schools and a $1.46 million contract with the Police Department to pay officers at 26 high schools and middle schools.

"This school district has maintained its security measures throughout all the budget cuts we've been going through," said School Board Chairwoman April Griffin.

And hiring resource officers is just a part of it, she said. The district has instilled a culture of encouraging students to step forward to report problems. At Freedom High School, an anonymous tip led to the arrest of Jared Cano, an expelled student who was convicted of plotting to discharge explosives at the school.

"If they hear something, we pay attention and we look into it," Griffin said.

Based on the level of parent anxiety in the aftermath of the Connecticut shootings, Griffin said she thinks a police presence at the school is a good idea.

But long-term, she said, "it can give you a false sense of security." And the School Board will need to consider the costs carefully. "We are going to have to have some conversations about it," she said.

Times staff writers Jeffrey Solochek and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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