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  1. Education

Romano: Instead of securing schools, lawmakers saved themselves

Gibbs High School students hold hands earlier this year during a moment of silence for the victims of the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting. Local officials have been struggling with how to finance and meet deadlines for the state's hastily passed school safety laws. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published May 16, 2018

I said it two months ago, and it's only become more obvious since then:

The bipartisan school safety proposal passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor had more to do with protecting the rear ends of politicians than the lives of students.

It was a cynical and senseless plan that gave the appearance of action by the Legislature while, in reality, dumping all the responsibility on school districts and law enforcement agencies.

And that's why it's looking so chaotic on the local level today.

Officials are forced to choose between taking cops off the streets and resources out of the classroom, or else risk accusations of not doing enough to protect students.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are nowhere to be found. It's a sweet gig if you don't mind living without a conscience.

COLUMNIST JOHN ROMANO ON SCHOOL SECURITY:

Romano: Until the Parkland shooting, lawmakers ignored requests for school safety funds (Feb. 20, 2018)

Romano: You may not like it, but here's one way to provide school safety (March 22, 2018)

Romano: Lawmakers need to admit, and fix, their school safety mistake (March 31, 2018)

Pinellas to dramatically expand school district's police force (May 9, 2018)

So here's the basic problem:

The state is mandating that every school have at least one person carrying a gun, but Tallahassee is not providing enough money for that person to be a professional. In fact, legislators are funneling so much money into vouchers and charters that traditional schools are scrambling just to pay non-safety bills.

So any plan to hire certified cops, which seemed appealing in March, is looking untenable in May. And that's why you've seen Pinellas officials reverse themselves in recent days.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Police Chief Tony Holloway announced Tuesday it was better to have cops on the streets and let the school district instead hire trained security guards.

And Pinellas Superintendent Mike Grego decided it was better to temporarily hire those security guards rather than raid his education budget to drastically expand the school district's police force in one year.

Those may not be popular choices, but they are sound choices.

I know school shooting headlines seem to be everywhere, and I know a lot of parents are on edge. But I also know these shootings are exceedingly rare.

The Washington Post recently compiled a database of shootings on campus during school hours since the Columbine tragedy 19 years ago. If you dig deep enough into the numbers, you'll discover there have been 58 cases involving a fatality, and many did not even involve students.

Even so, that's an average of three fatal incidents per year. When you consider there are about 130,000 schools nationwide, that puts the odds of a fatal shooting at your child's school at around 43,000-to-1.

Do you know how many Florida students were killed on campus by gunfire in the 19 years before Parkland? Three. And one of those was killed by a cop, and another was accidentally shot by a friend.

That doesn't mean school safety isn't important and isn't a tragedy waiting to happen.

But it does suggest that we should spend a little more time exploring the nuances of safety instead of simply declaring that schools will no longer be gun-free zones.

A lot of districts in Florida are still formulating plans, but the Legislature's suggestion of arming school employees seems to have fallen flat in most places. Particularly among the largest districts.

Brevard, Duval, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco and Pinellas are all moving toward trained security guards. Sarasota and Miami-Dade are expanding district police forces. Broward is seeking more school resource officers from local law enforcement agencies.

I'm not saying one plan is infinitely better than another. What I am saying is Tallahassee should not have put local officials in a bind without providing adequate resources and with a looming deadline.

Clearly, we all want schools to be as safe as possible.

But if it means fewer cops in neighborhoods and fewer teachers in classrooms, then legislators need to revamp their flawed solution. Another school shooting is bound to take place someday. It'll help if lawmakers approach the problem with more wisdom and less political calculation.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

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