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Hillsborough School Board approves armed guards for elementary schools

Hillsborough County school officer Obed Gerena stands in front of Cahoon Elementary School in Tampa in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings. On a normal day he is patrolling schools throughout the county, but this morning he was on foot at the east Tampa elementary school. Scenes like this, at Cahoon Elementary Magnet in Tampa, greeted parents across the bay area police increased their profile after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
Hillsborough County school officer Obed Gerena stands in front of Cahoon Elementary School in Tampa in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings. On a normal day he is patrolling schools throughout the county, but this morning he was on foot at the east Tampa elementary school. Scenes like this, at Cahoon Elementary Magnet in Tampa, greeted parents across the bay area police increased their profile after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
Published Dec. 19, 2013

TAMPA — Shoulder to shoulder they sat, each given two minutes to bring the Hillsborough County School Board into their world.

They talked of cussing parents, road rage in school parking lots, threats against staff. "I cannot control what comes through those front doors," said Dina Wyatt, principal of Walden Lake Elementary School.

Russell Wallace, principal of Bailey Elementary, teared up describing conversations with his family after the Dec. 14, 2012, killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. His daughter asked what he would have done.

Kristin Tonelli, principal of Lewis Elementary, said she considers herself a good negotiator. "But I don't know what I would say to someone with a gun on my campus."

After their statements, and an hourlong discussion about the societal ills that brought them to this point, the board on Wednesday made its long-awaited decision on superintendent MaryEllen Elia's plan to put armed guards in elementary schools.

In a 4-3 vote, with Cindy Stuart, Susan Valdes and April Griffin dissenting, they approved the first of four phases of a plan that eventually would post officers — armed but without arrest powers — at all 146 elementary schools. The guards will complement the sworn law enforcement officers who patrol at middle and high schools. If the plan is fully implemented, it will cost between $3.4 million and $4.5 million by various estimates.

This first phase, costing $815,000, is a far cry from what Elia proposed nearly a year ago — a plan to hire all the guards in the first year. Instead, 20 officers and two specialists will be hired, requiring the recruits to divide their time among multiple schools.

It's still a more dramatic response to Sandy Hook than any other area school district has taken. While some invested in cameras, gates and buzzers — as did Hillsborough — officials in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando did not hire guards.

Sheriff's deputies in Pasco County patrolled the areas around the schools in the weeks after the Connecticut shootings. But superintendent Kurt Browning said he would not place guards in elementary schools even if parents demanded it. He said he did not want to send the wrong message about school safety.

In Hillsborough, the issue has been highly divisive for the better part of a year. When Elia unveiled her original plan at a news conference in January, she offended board members who wanted to take the lead in setting the security agenda.

Even after two workshops and countless closed-door discussions between administrators and board members, questions remained Wednesday about the current system and how the expansion would be paid for.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb asked security chief David Friedberg about his officers' training and qualifications. "Very seldom do we hire someone with minimum experience," he assured her.

Community organizer Jose Colindres questioned whether the guards are protected by state law when they need to use force. School Board attorney Jim Porter said he believes they are, but he will research the topic further.

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Stuart said the price tag, which ultimately will push security spending to roughly $14 million, "breaks my heart." She questioned whether the public supported the plan. "I see a lot of administrators here," she said.

Griffin, who argued all along for a more holistic approach to the problems plaguing schools, said she still believes armed guards will not cure what amounts to a lack of civility among parents and children.

"We have so many societal issues we are trying to address with this one shot in the arm, and it is an expensive shot in the arm," she said.

From their seats in the audience, the principals barely contained their emotions. "Oh, no," they whispered when Stuart suggested they wanted campus disciplinarians. A few walked out after Griffin's remarks.

The principals applauded when Edgecomb pointed out that the auditorium they were in had guards to protect everyone's safety. She asked: "How can I not offer that same peace of mind to those in our schools?"

As with other issues facing this board, member Stacy White cast the swing vote. Now a candidate for County Commission, he told the principals half jokingly that they should lobby for the return of paddling.

The problem, he said, was bigger than school violence. "We're a society that needs to slow down, remember what really matters in life," he said. "We need to stop our relentless pursuit of irrelevant material goods made in China." People need to love their children but also discipline them, he said. "Instill in them a sense of responsibility toward God, country, and their fellow human beings."

He implored principals not to let the guards, if approved, make their schools less welcoming. And he asked that the proposal be tweaked to make it clear that the board was committing only to the first year of the plan.

With that, board members voted. Principals applauded. And the board adjourned for the holidays.

Times staff writers Lisa Gartner, Jeff Solochek and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 810-5068 or sokol@tampabay.com.