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Pinellas rushes to train dozens of new school resource officers

School districts around the state are grappling with how to properly train and station armed guards at every school to comply with a new state law by the start of the new school year.

Districts could arm and train school employees, which is an option the Legislature gave districts when it passed a school security bill in response to the Feb. 14 shooting attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 dead.

But Pinellas County has opted for the more intensive, and expensive option: Putting a sworn law enforcement in every school.

That's why officials are moving quickly to train at least 156 new school resource officers this summer, an unprecedented number of officers who need to learn how to do their jobs in a school environment.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:Tampa Bay needs millions to pay for school security law

Registration for a 40-hour course for SROs, as they're called, at St. Petersburg College's Allstate Center is rapidly filling up. The center has expanded enrollment from 20 officers in a typical training class to 134 officers, said public safety programs director Michael DiBuono.

Nearly 80 officers from Pinellas law enforcement agencies have already reserved a slot in the June class. A second class is expected to be held in July to train another 100 officers.

It's a story being repeated across the state, as community colleges that offer SRO training brace for a swell of trainees this summer. That training is offered with guidance and funding from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Attorney General's Office.

The state-mandated curriculum, "gives the street officer an overview of what his job's like," DiBuono said, preparing them for the "transition (of) what officers look like on the street to now interacting with the kids in the schools."

According to the Florida Association of School Resource Officers (or FASRO), the curriculum, which was developed in 1985, has three major components: law enforcement, education and counseling. The training emphasizes that SROs must be "positive" in their interactions, according to the curriculum, in both policing and in "role modeling" for students.

Expect the 33 St. Petersburg police officers now reassigned to SRO duty to attend those summer training sessions. Last week the department announced it was moving those officers from their current assignments, most of which were in community policing.

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Sgt. Orlawnah Sandy said she was not sure how many officers have registered for the SPC course or might already have SRO training. That's because officers may have also served as substitute SROs in the past. The new SROs will also get a primer in active-shooter drills.

But inside the schools, she said, the officers have to understand how to adjust their conduct compared to how they carry out their duties on the street.

"You have to have the right demeanor to work in the schools," Sandy said. "You're not only dealing with the police department, you're also dealing with the school staff."

She said some St. Petersburg officers will also attend FASRO's annual week-long conference this summer at the end of July in Bonita Springs. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, this year's conference will focus on active-shooting training for SROs and school staff. New school resource officers from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will likely be there as well.

The Sheriff's Office does not yet know how many school resource officers it will place in schools within its jurisdiction. But first, like everyone else, sheriff's officials need to get those deputies training this summer.

"That's one area where we try to expose law enforcement officers to the nuances of working in a school," said Pinellas sheriff's Lt. Joni Goodley. Another thing SROs will have to learn, she said, is crisis intervention.

"Anybody new comes in, we will be working to making sure they're exposed to that as well," she said.

Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said his department will need to hire 13 officers to cover 11 schools. He said he has been looking to hire retired officers familiar with the area — but even they still need training.

Slaughter said SPC is working on creating an abbreviated, 8-hour course for officers who will temporarily serve as SROs until permanent replacements are found. The goal is to prepare them to work inside schools, Slaughter said, where "you just have to have a bit of a different mindset."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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