Pasco school district moves quickly to create safety officer program for elementary schools

The model should be less expensive than placing law enforcement at each campus.
Pasco Sheriff's Office Cpl. Elissa Elders was school resource officer at Pine View Middle School in 2016. New law now requires all schools to have at least one armed officer. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]
Pasco Sheriff's Office Cpl. Elissa Elders was school resource officer at Pine View Middle School in 2016. New law now requires all schools to have at least one armed officer. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]
Published April 25, 2018

The idea of placing armed safety officers rather than sworn law enforcement into Pasco County's elementary schools first surfaced a week ago, but it is swiftly moving toward becoming reality.

Superintendent Kurt Browning has asked the School Board to approve the program — including its $2.8 million budget and new job descriptions — at its May 1 meeting.

"We don't have a lot of time," assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn said to explain the quick pace, noting the district would need to hire 50 qualified employees and get them trained in time for the August 13 start of classes.

New state law requires all public schools to have armed security of some sort by the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year. Schools can use resource officers, district security or armed employee "guardians" who have other jobs as well.

A majority of Florida school districts have balked at the idea of arming their school aides, administrators and other staff members. But they also have observed that the state did not provide enough money for them to afford law enforcement at every campus.

Some, including Polk and Duval counties, have moved toward the middle ground option that Pasco will consider on Tuesday.

Pasco County middle and high schools would continue to have resource officers provided by either the Sheriff's Office or local police departments. But the elementary schools would get armed security guards who do not have arrest authority, and whose primary job as district employees would be to monitor and secure the schools.

Because they would have no other job responsibilities, the district appears not to be eligible for a portion of the $67 million lawmakers set aside for the "guardian" program.

As a result, even with this lower-cost option — safety officers would earn $20 per hour — the district anticipates a $668,000 deficit in the implementation year, and a $311,000 annual deficit after startup expenses are covered.

Officials have asked lawmakers to free some of the guardian funds for the security officer concept. They also have worked with U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis to secure added federal COPS grant funding for more resource officers, their preferred way of protecting schools.

But they don't have time to wait for a response, and so School Board members are leaning toward pressing ahead.

"I would prefer SROs, but I definitely prefer this to the guardian program," board member Colleen Beaudoin said.

The longer the district delays, she said, the harder it will be to get people hired and trained by the Sheriff's Office. The district also needs time to prepare the officers, many of whom are likely to be retired police, military and corrections workers, to work with elementary school children, she added.

"It's a different atmosphere when you're working around kids," Beaudoin said.

Vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said she viewed the safety officer idea as the best the district can do, given the resources it has. She also expressed a desire for SROs instead, "but with the four month deadline we have, I don't see how that would be feasible."

She had concerns about covering the projected deficits. But Crumbley said it had to be done somehow.

"School safety comes first, without a doubt," she said. "We cover our museums with armed guards. We have to protect our kids."

Board member Allen Altman said he spoke with the majority of elementary school principals in his board district, to see what model they liked best. Of the options presented, he said, all supported the safety officers.

"They like the fact that they are also employees and can be part of the staff there," Altman said. "They are very comfortable with that."

He, like the others, said he still had questions for the administration about the proposal. But given the circumstances, the board members said they were strongly considering approval.