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Investigations examined Hillsborough school security department

A Hillsborough County Schools officer stands in front of Cahoon Elementary School in Tampa after the shootings in Newtown, Conn in December 2012. A month later, superintendent MaryEllen Elia proposed placing guards in all elementary schools.
A Hillsborough County Schools officer stands in front of Cahoon Elementary School in Tampa after the shootings in Newtown, Conn in December 2012. A month later, superintendent MaryEllen Elia proposed placing guards in all elementary schools.
Published Sep. 7, 2014

TAMPA — Around the time Hillsborough County school officials were debating whether to ramp up security after the Sandy Hook shootings, the department that would carry out the expansion was wrestling with its own problems.

Allegations swirled about threats and bad management in the district's security department, as well as the potentially improper practice of accepting gifts from vendors, according to a report released recently by the department's new chief, John Newman.

Newman's investigation was based on an employee's anonymous complaint, which accused management of bullying and threatening subordinates — allegations that prompted a similar investigation two years earlier and resulted in a top officer being sent to anger management and sensitivity training.

"The security department is in a downward spiral and will crash and burn if they continue on this path," the complaint said.

Newman, who took over in April, does not share that assessment. He says he dealt with the new allegations one by one, disproving some and making small changes as a result of others.

But he acknowledged it is too early to assess morale. "I still think people are trying to feel me out," he said. But "from my lifeguard chair, it looks pretty good."

Unlike perhaps any district in Florida, Hillsborough guards some schools with employees who are armed but not sworn law enforcement officers. Other districts have in-house police departments with full law enforcement status or contract arrangements with law enforcement agencies. Hillsborough has such contracts for its high schools and middle schools. But its department of armed, unsworn officers guards dozens of elementary schools.

Because the setup is so unusual, some guards complain that their training is too physical, resembling police drills.

Newman, who underwent defensive tactics training himself this year, supports the practice. While elementary school children aren't likely to threaten an officer, he said, an angry parent might. "We expect more of out of them," he said of the guards. The Hillsborough system has been in the spotlight since January 2013, when superintendent MaryEllen Elia proposed placing guards in all elementary schools.

Board members rejected the plan, some citing cost and others calling it a hasty reaction to the December 2012 mass shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Later in the year, board members approved the first of four phases of a plan that eventually could post officers at all 146 elementary schools. Twenty new officers are now on the ground.

As the debate played out in public, the district's professional standards office was wrapping up an investigation of allegations against then-chief David Friedberg and his captain, Zamir Ode. The 2012 complaint accused Ode of heavy-handed management, and Friedberg of allowing it.

Officer Alejandro Claudio told investigators Ode challenged him to a fight. "We can do it here or I'll meet you anywhere you want, even your house if I have to," he alleged that Ode said.

Ode denied that account, according to the report. As he recalled the incident, he heard Claudio wanted to meet him in a dark alley. He said he told Claudio, "he can come see the captain any time or any place he wants."

Neither Claudio nor Ode responded to a reporter's requests for comment.

Five officers interviewed in 2012 described Ode as overbearing and intimidating. Friedberg described him as "direct, caring and dedicated to his job." Both acknowledged Ode sometimes lets employees know he can replace them. As Friedberg saw it, that was appropriate as employees should do their jobs.

As a result of the 2012 investigation, Ode was referred to classes in anger management and sensitivity training.

Newman, reviewing the 2014 complaint, found the issue of intimidation had been resolved in the prior case. As for improper management, he said, "I've looked for it, and I haven't seen anybody treated poorly."

But, to avoid the appearance of impropriety in some cases, he did fine-tune other issues:

• The letter alleged that "when the security department orders supplies, it is common practice for certain staff members to receive gratuities from the vendor." These included clothing in the supervisor's size, shoes and boots, sometimes sent to the boss' home instead of the office. There also were discounts on guns, the letter said.

Newman found that a payroll clerk kept a box of sample items that were used as giveaways at the department's holiday party. In addition, Ode told him the suppliers sometimes give them samples to use in the field. Newman put an end to the holiday giveaways. If the department uses samples on a trial basis, he wrote, they must be returned. But he found no problem if, in a private transaction, a gun dealer gave a guard a discount.

• Supervisors were accused of threatening employees. While not finding fault with any individuals, Newman wrote that "civility will be emphasized" and he will provide training in how to deal with employees who violate department policy. Ode launched an effort in 2013 to train new supervisors, Newman wrote.

• Some department cars have red and blue lights and siren boxes, similar to police cars. The complaint alleged guards create a liability risk when they put on the lights while rushing to schools.

Newman found that issue was dealt with in 2013. But he's making it clear that employees cannot use the lights while off school grounds. In the future he wants new department cars to have white, yellow and green lights like security cars.

Newman said he's trying to view the investigation in a positive manner. "It made me vet a lot of things more quickly than I would have wanted to," he said.

"It forced me to lift up the hood and look at how things work. It was a good learning curve for me."

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