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Hernando to post sheriff's deputy in every school

BROOKSVILLE — Following unanimous approvals by Hernando County's School Board and Board of Commissioners Tuesday, every school in the county will be armed with a sheriff's deputy by Thursday.

County and school district leaders agreed to split the bill — totaling $825,466 through September — so the Sheriff's Office can provide the training and personnel to fill the school resource officer positions.

Prior to the approvals, only 13 of the district's 23 schools, most of which are high schools, had an armed deputy. Under the new plan, 10 more officers will be trained and deployed. The agreement also pays for an additional sergeant, who will facilitate training.

The boards called the move a "first step" to amp up security in Hernando schools following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County earlier this month, which left 17 dead and has people across the nation calling for better safety measures in schools.

"Today was a momentous day for our two boards to come together and say that our students matter in our community," said schools Superintendent Lori Romano following the School Board's vote. "Their safety matters."

Steve Champion, chairman of the County Commission called it a "great thing to see the whole county come together."

Sheriff Al Nienhuis and Captain Harold Hutchinson, who heads up the school resource officer program for the Sheriff's Office, came before both boards Tuesday, detailing their "ready to go" plan of action.

The deputies will be transferred from existing posts, which the sheriff will back-fill. They began training Wednesday morning and are slated to be in schools by Thursday. Armed with handguns, they will work weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. through the school year and in the summer. They will participate in multiple trainings, including an active-shooter course, Hutchinson said.

Funds from the county and school district will cover the deputies' salaries as well as their cars, computers, uniforms and guns. Before commissioners agreed Tuesday to back the plan, the superintendent urged them to think of school safety as a "community issue."

"If there's one thing we can come together around," she said, "we can come together around our children."

Commissioners expressed doubt that a school resource officer would be enough to prevent a tragedy like that in South Florida, but Romano called school safety a "multifaceted issue" that will take time to address. The district also is reviewing safety plans, undergoing additional training and "looking at every child with multiple risk factors," she said.

"This is only the first step to make our schools safer," said School Board Chairman Mark Johnson.

At a School Board workshop Tuesday afternoon, member Susan Duval worried that "moving at warp speed" on the temporary, six-month plan — not knowing whether the county will continue the partnership, or the state will fund school resource officers, as Gov. Rick Scott has suggested — could blow a hole in the district's tight budget.

"We have finally gotten ourselves in a position of financial security ... to have a little bit of cushion that we haven't had in many, many years," she said. "I'm not opposed to this, understand that. But I am opposed to the financial position that this has placed us in."

The problem, she said, is that it would be difficult to remove the officers once they are placed in schools and their positions are backfilled by the sheriff.

Romano and board member Beth Narverud expressed confidence that the county will continue to help foot the bill. If not, Narverud said, the district has to find a way.

"I think the climate and change in the way this world is, we have to put this first and foremost before other things, regardless of the support that we get," she said. "We always say we put our children first ... we have to put them first in this."

When the School Board voted Tuesday night, sealing the deal, their meeting room erupted in applause from the audience. A representative from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office, who was at the meeting to present Romano with an award, praised county leaders' joint effort to bolster school security.

"To see on the ground the momentum and the action that's happening ... I applaud each and every one of you," Shahra Anderson said. Then to Hernando students: "We are motivated and determined by you, through you and because of you."