TAMPA – Every elementary school in Hillsborough County could have an armed officer patrolling its halls within four years.
The school board voted 4-3 to approve the first phase of a $4.5 million security plan that would phase in “community school officers'' – who are not sworn law enforcement officers but district employees – over the next four years. The board approved $815,000 in funding for the first year and will consider approving the remaining three phases each year.
This school year, 20 community school officers and two school security specialists will be hired to patrol 20 district schools. The officers will make $12.21 per hour, the specialists $15.02 per hour.
If the remaining funding is approved in each of the next three years, 38 officers would be placed in specific schools next year, 40 would be added in the third year, and every school would have its own officer in the fourth year.
Numerous elementary school principals spoke to the school board before the vote, urging approval of the plan. Some said they and school staff are often the first-responders in potentially dangerous situations and that having an armed officer on campus would greatly increase security. They said officers form relationships with students and help resolve conflicts with angry adult visitors.
“When the security officer is not on my campus, the difference in behavior is remarkable,” Nelson Elementary Principal Cindy Guy said. “I have road rage in the parking lot. I have parents cursing at my secretaries and refusing to show their ID's.”
Not all of the speakers were supporters of the plan.
“The difficulty you run into is that school security officers rarely will ever deter or resolve a school shooting incident or major atrocity on a school campus,” said Michael Pheneger with the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “They're being trained as unofficial police officers and they will contribute to additional arrests of minorities.”
Community school officers, which do not have arrest powers like sworn law enforcement officers do, are already stationed in 19 district elementary schools. Each middle and high school already has its own Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputy or Tampa police officer.
A $1.2 million federal Department of Justice grant will place 10 sheriff's deputies in elementary schools this year.
Board member Stacy White said he would not approve all four years of the plan at once because he wants board members to have a chance each year to decide whether to move on to the next phase.
The agenda item was amended to include funding only for the first year. White was joined in his yes vote by board members Carol Kurdell, Candy Olson and Doretha Edgecomb.
“No community in today's world is exempt the possibility of someone coming into our schools with the worst of intentions,” Edgecomb said. “We've heard the pleading loud and strong from the leaders of our schools. Ironically, as I look around this room, there is the presence of security officers that are for me a sense of well-being and safety. How can I not offer that same piece of mind to those in our schools?”
Members April Griffin, Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes opposed the measure, citing the price tag as one of the major concerns.