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Deputy may go to schools

Sheriff Jeff Dawsy's plan to start placing school resource officers, or SROs, at the elementary schools gained the County Commission's support Thursday.

Commissioners agreed at their budget workshop to help pay for an SRO who would rotate between Citrus Springs Elementary, Floral City Elementary and Homosassa Elementary next year. The officer would teach two crime prevention programs to third-graders and help school officials deal with behavioral problems in younger students, Dawsy said.

Dawsy said he would gradually add five more elementary SROs in future budget years, perhaps with the help of federal grants. There already are school resource officers stationed in the county's middle schools, high schools and the Renaissance Center, which serves the county's disruptive middle school and high school students.

"All the studies my school resource officers show me tell me we need to be at a younger level in the schools to start influencing behavior situations in a positive way," Dawsy told the Times.

"They (the SROs) would play a very big role in assisting elementary school administrators in positive behavior reinforcement."

Commissioners would split the cost of the elementary SRO with the School Board, which will discuss the idea Aug. 13. The $92,000 startup cost for an SRO includes salary, benefits, a vehicle and a laptop computer.

The plan already has supporters in the school district, including School Board member Patience Nave, who has called for an SRO at every elementary school.

"We need to teach children early on about some of the dangers that they face and some of the requirements of good citizenship and have a positive presence of law enforcement for the children," Nave said during an interview Thursday.

"The problems children have been experiencing (at the middle and high schools) have been filtering down into the younger children," she said. "As much as we hate spending money in that way, if we can have them with better ideas of citizenship and behavior when they leave fifth grade when they make that jump to middle school . . . we will have a better opportunity with success for them."

When school officials spoke with elementary school administrators earlier this year, there was unanimous support for law enforcement presence to provide education, a positive role model, help with security and assistance with the steadily growing numbers of students who get out of control or violate the Student Code of Conduct.

"We feel as though having more frequent presence of a deputy gives our youngest children more of a positive feeling about the presence of a deputy, and the sooner we can be sending that message, the better," said Bonnie Hardiman, director of student services.

Nine SROs already are assigned to the county's middle and high schools. Two of them visit the elementary schools to teach FOCUS, a drug and violence education program for fifth-grade students.

The elementary SROs eventually would take over the fifth-grade FOCUS program, freeing the middle school SROs to bring a new version of the antidrug program to seventh-graders, Dawsy said.

"We know we have to do a better job reinforcing the values we put into them in the fifth grade, so when they get to high school, we give them all of the information possibly available to them," Dawsy said.

The elementary SROs also would bring two new programs to third-graders. A "cybersafety" program would alert kids to the predators lurking on the Internet; the Child Lures Prevention Program would show children how to avoid situations where they could be abused or abducted.

To make his point to commissioners Thursday, Dawsy showed a three-minute digital movie of a Tampa pedophile paging through erotic pictures of children. The film, once posted on the pedophile's Web site, was available to anyone with an Internet connection.

"That's very, very disturbing," Commission Chairman Jim Fowler said after the film finished. "I'd just about as soon look at autopsy photos."

The County Commission reviews the sheriff's budget, since commissioners pay for it using property tax revenue.

Dawsy's $18-million budget _ the largest piece of the county's $133-million budget pie _ also includes funding for a new detective to investigate child Internet pornography and other cyber crimes.

So far this year, the Sheriff's Office has investigated more than 20 cases of adults targeting children over the Internet, Detective Mike Baute said.

"I'm working on a case right now involving a 15-year-old girl who's met several men in chat rooms," Baute told commissioners. "Our number of men that we're now investigating is up to six."

Commissioners wrapped up their two-day budget hearings Thursday by adopting a millage rate of 8.5553 for the year starting Oct. 1.

The millage rate is the same as for the past few years, but residents could pay more if their property has increased in taxable value.