U.S. Rep. Bilirakis urges AG Sessions to focus millions on resource officers for nation’s biggest school districts

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis asks the Pasco County School Board for ideas to improve school safety during a Feb. 20, 2018, workshop. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | TImes]
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis asks the Pasco County School Board for ideas to improve school safety during a Feb. 20, 2018, workshop. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | TImes]
Published March 27

Shortly after the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis told the Pasco County School Board that putting more money into trained resource officers was a "no brainer."

With the passage of a federal omnibus spending package, the Palm Harbor Republican is working to steer millions toward school officers in the nation's largest districts, two of which — Pasco and Pinellas —  he represents.

On Monday, Bilirakis sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging him to direct $75 million in the federal funding bill  toward Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. Earlier in the month, Sessions announced he would put more money into the competitive grant program, prioritizing school districts seeking to hire more law enforcement.

"Sadly, in my Congressional District, there is currently insufficient funding to provide at least one SRO on every school campus," Bilirakis wrote to Sessions. "I implore you to once again use your discretionary authority and use these funds to expand the COPS hiring program, particularly for large districts serving 50,000 or more students, as they face a significant burden in hiring in trying to hire enough SROs for every campus."

Florida has 14 districts with more than 50,000 students. Most have said they need more than $1 million more than the state Legislature has allocated to ensure at least one officer per campus.

Pasco County Schools, for instance, have 37 resource officers and would need 47 more to staff every school. The district estimates its total cost for SROs in each school to be $5.2 million; it received a total allocation of $3.5 million.

Pinellas County officials have projected a $12.4 million gap between its existing funds and its anticipated costs to place an officer in every school.

Related coverage: Tampa Bay needs millions to pay for school security law

The money would not be guaranteed, as districts would have to apply for funding. But Summer Robertson, Bilirakis deputy chief of staff, said she believed the Florida districts would have a "good likelihood" of gaining support for their efforts.

"The pot will be expanding and available quickly," Robertson said, noting its addition to the budget comes April 1.

She added that Bilirakis is already working to secure funding in the coming year budget for resource officers, as well.

"This is about protecting our children and ensuring that they feel safe when they go to school to learn," Bilirakis said in a released statement. "I want every parent to have the confidence of knowing that a well-trained, seasoned professional is at the helm."

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