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  1. Hernando

Hernando County School Board ponders hiring 'guardians' alongside school resource officers

Hernando County Sheriff's deputy Cory Zarcone talks to students during breakfast time in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. After a year of having resource deputies in all district schools, the School Board is now pondering the merits of a school guardian program. Times (2018)
Published Jun. 26

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County schools didn't have a school guardian program in the first year after a state law passed allowing certain school personnel to be armed. The school district instead contracted with the Sheriff's Office in 2018 to hire school resource officers to satisfy security requirements put in place after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

The law initially let sheriff's offices decide whether they wanted to provide training for so-called guardians, and the Hernando County Sheriff's Office didn't want to. But a new state law hands that decision to school districts. Amid a lengthy update on school security in a Tuesday workshop, School Board members pondered a guardian program.

Board chair Susan Duval's opinion on the matter was swift and blunt: "For me, no."

But other board members were curious. Jimmy Lodato suggested guardians might help on campuses that are large enough to pose problems for a resource deputy in the event of a calamity. Or they could help cover extracurricular events.

"In the ideal perfect world, I would like to see SROs and guardians, especially in our larger schools," board member Linda Prescott said. "I would be in support of moving forward with a discussion."

The board asked staff members to return with more information on a program for guardians, who have security-based duties, but no arrest powers. Deputy superintendent Heather Martin said the cost of hiring five school guardians would be about $259,000 annually.

That could be on top of an even bigger bill for school resource deputies. The contract with the Sheriff's Office allows the agency to increase its bill by 5 percent before next school year, Martin said, and it's exercising the full 5 percent increase. That adds about $100,000 to the price tag, already more than $2 million in 2018-19.

The news drew Lodato's ire.

"I would like to go on record: A 5 percent increase is ridiculous," he said. "We really need to talk to the sheriff about this."

State funding for security likely will resemble last year's. Mental health funding is expected to increase by about $65,000, director of safe schools Jill Renihan told the board, and safe schools funding by about $150,000. She said she expects the district to get about as much grant money for school hardening as it did last year.

But the district suffered a recent blow on more money for hardening, which includes physical reinforcement of facilities. Gov. Ron DeSantis last week vetoed from the state budget a proposed $1 million in hardening money for Hernando schools.

"It will impact our pace, for sure," Renihan said.

In a presentation later Tuesday, Shawn Foster, who lobbies on the School Board's behalf, said Hernando fared better than three-dozen other districts who wanted hardening money — only Hernando's request even made it to DeSantis' desk. But Foster has also been in touch with the office of education commissioner Richard Corcoran, who wants districts to start school guardian programs, Foster said. Hernando's lack of such a program could have had a bearing on DeSantis' veto decision, he said.

Elsewhere in security news, Renihan said a recent school safety survey came back with responses from thousands of students, about 1,200 teachers and about 100 parents. It showed that 84 percent of staff members felt they had a safe work environment, she said, and 77 percent of students said they knew an adult they could go to for help.

One local charter school, Gulf Coast Academy, has told the district it will likely pursue a school guardian program next year, Martin said. The other, Brooksville Engineering Science and Technology Academy, plans to hire a private security firm. Earlier this year, the county charter schools' lack of school resource deputies left the district out of compliance with state law. Both eventually contracted with the Sheriff's Office.

Meanwhile, Renihan said, the district continues safety training and is deploying the emergency-communication app CrisisGo.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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