TAMPA — With scarce dollars and a mandate to provide armed protection for all students, some Tampa Bay area school officials have started to make use of a state initiative they once disparaged.
Named for a coach who was slain in the Feb. 14 Parkland massacre and enacted after opposition to an earlier proposal to arm teachers, the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program is a way to qualify other school employees to carry weapons and defend campuses against lethal intruders.
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister was among those who earlier this year scoffed at the idea of arming teachers, which was first proposed by President Trump. And the guardian program never caught on among educators and law enforcement as the best way to protect schools.
But Chronister stood with Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins on Thursday to unveil a security plan that relies on trained security officers, including many who already work in Hillsborough schools.
"As much as I am opposed to arming our educators," Chronister said, "there is a unique reality here in Hillsborough with an almost 40-year-old, established agency of security personnel that we can take advantage of. I can feel comfortable that they are going to provide the level of professionalism, safety and security to keep our children safe."
Florida’s school security mandate has officials in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties scrambling to place an armed person on every campus by the new school year, which begins in August.
The hurdles are time and money, with not enough of either for districts to meet the mandate as they would like. The favored option among most educators is to hire school resource officers, or SROs, who are certified law enforcement officers. But that is proving expensive, with not enough money from the state to offset the cost.
Hillsborough and Pasco are instead going with armed security officers.
Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego this week announced plans to expand that district’s police department. While the new recruits will be certified officers, they will be paid less than SROs, making it harder find qualified candidates.
Hernando school officials have decided on adding SROs, but haven’t figured out how to pay for them.
In the plan described Thursday in Hillsborough, sworn law enforcement will provide coverage at schools that do not yet have it until they can be replaced by the school security officers, who are not sworn and do not have arrest powers.
Officials made it clear that cost was a factor in a year when Florida education funding increased by an average of 47 cents per student.
The district’s security plan will cost an estimated $7 million in its first year and $5.3 million per year after that, school officials said. Using SROs would have cost $12 million.
"This plan is right for our community," Eakins said. "It allows us to spend more money in our classrooms and schools while providing a proven, high-level security force."
Other counties have made similar calculations.
Grego’s plan calls for expanding the Pinellas school district’s police force from 18 officers to 100 for the 2018-19 school year. The officers will be certified law enforcement with arrest powers, making $20 to $22 per hour. Police departments in St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Gulfport and Tarpon Springs will temporarily provide officers at schools until the district can hire the extra officers.
Pasco will hire school guards for its 47 elementary schools after determining it could not afford sworn law enforcement officers to patrol the campuses. It already has SROs at all middle and high schools. The district received more than 125 applications for the new posts, and began interviewing candidates on Thursday.
Shortly after the Parkland shooting, Hernando county commissioners agreed to split with the school district the more than $825,000 cost of putting 10 new school resource officers in Hernando’s elementary schools through September. But with both governments strapped for cash and considering tax increases, what happens once that funding runs out is still up in the air.
School and county officials will meet May 21 to continue hashing who will pay for what.
At Thursday’s news conference announcing Hillsborough’s plans, Eakins and Chronister highlighted some of the challenges they face and a timeline that Chronister described as "extremely fluid."
The district, by far the area’s largest, already has SROs at all of its middle and high schools under contract with law enforcement agencies, so no change is contemplated there.
But 101 of Hillsborough’s 176 regular and charter elementary schools do not have armed protection.
And, even where security officers are in place, they will require additional training to be certified under the guardian program. That training will take place between now and August.
District leaders say their officers typically have retired from law enforcement or the military. The approach differs from the initial guardian idea in that the officers will not hold other jobs at the schools. "They will not have any other responsibility than to make sure that our children are safe," Chronister said.
To qualify under state law, the recruits must undergo background screening including a psychological exam; 132 hours of comprehensive firearms safety and proficiency training; annual weapons qualification and 12 hours of diversity training.
The Sheriff’s Office is advertising for these "school security deputies," offering $24.77 an hour only for hours worked during the 10-month school year, not including school holidays.
Until the new security deputies are in place, Chronister said, the county’s law enforcement agencies — the Sheriff’s Office, and the police departments in Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace — will assign officers to schools that need them.
The expectation is that these officers will return to their regular duty once the school security force is at full strength.
The transition will take about two years, the Sheriff’s Office estimated.
Times Staff Writers Megan Reeves and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.