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Hillsborough school leaders await details on move to tighter security

The Hillsborough County School Board hears about upcoming security changes at a workshop on Thursday. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times  files]
The Hillsborough County School Board hears about upcoming security changes at a workshop on Thursday. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times files]
Published Mar. 29, 2018

TAMPA — Members of the Hillsborough County School Board got a glimpse at the state's new law on school security on Thursday, although much information has yet to arrive.

Questions include who, for example, would be considered qualified to work with students on mental health issues, which is one of the requirements of House Bill 7026.

"These are all things that we're waiting for direction on," said Connie Milito, the district's chief of government relations, addressing the board at a workshop.

Despite these uncertainties, districts are on a tight timeline to create safety plans and implement them before the start of the next school year.

Hillsborough, the state's third largest district, must find a way to put a resource officer, a safety officer — which is almost the same thing — or a state-qualified marshal in each of its 254 schools.

Doing so with sworn law enforcement officers, such as those from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department, will cost an estimated $16.9 million. That would create a $16 million gap between what the district gets for safe schools funding and what it spends on security.

"We're having those conversations and reviewing every aspect of this law to know how we implement it, ensure safety at every one of our campuses and come as close to in-budget as possible," Superintendent Jeff Eakins said.

District leaders and Sheriff Chad Chronister previously rejected the new law's "guardian" option, which provides training to civilian school employees. Eakins said he and Chronister agreed from the beginning that "we are not going to arm teachers, we are not going to arm media specialists custodians."

But the district's own security force, who are not sworn law enforcement officers, could be an option if they are classified as guardians. "We're looking at everything," Eakins said.

Eakins also acknowledged that staff is taking a fresh look at the student code of conduct, which was amended nearly three years ago to make it more difficult for schools to hand out long out-of-school suspensions.

Member Melissa Snively said teachers and principals have told her "their hands are tied and they are not able to control the students in their classes and in their schools."

Member Cindy Stuart said it will be hard to balance the need for security against the need to make sure schools do not feel like prisons, just as the new law's "zero tolerance" language might discourage students from coming forward to report problems.

Stuart said she also worries there not enough resources to treat students with mental health problems.

"We cannot treat some of these kids in our schools," she said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.