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Deputies, police to guard every Hillsborough elementary school

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:06 AM

When classes resume Monday at Hillsborough County elementary schools, an armed police officer or deputy will be on duty at each one for security purposes.

That precaution was taken in local schools the week before the two-week holiday break in the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 that left 26 dead, including 20 students.

But it was uncertain whether the extra law enforcement presence would continue after the winter vacation. Officials said Wednesday that the additional security — armed officers or deputies already are assigned to the district's middle and high schools — will be extended to elementary schools the remainder of the school year.

That decision comes after a joint meeting between the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Tampa Police Department and school district staff.

"The safety of our children is of the utmost importance," said Lt. Chad Chronister of the sheriff's office, which already has 50 deputies assigned to school resource duties across the county.

"Until the school board figures out how they want to handle this long-term, we are going to take it upon ourselves to ensure the safety of these children," Chronister said.

That means the sheriff's office and Tampa police have to find a way to place a uniformed presence in about 150 elementary schools countywide.

The sheriff's office plans to pull personnel from all divisions and also offer overtime to be able to fill those spots, the lieutenant said.

Currently, the sheriff's office has a shortage of more than 200 deputies.

"We're already short," Chronister said. "It's definitely a drain on our resources."

School security has been an issue across the nation in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Connecticut. Using a high-powered weapon, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six staff members at the school before killing himself. He also killed his mother before the bloody rampage at the school.

The National Rifle Association on Dec. 21 called for an armed guard in every school across the country.

In the week before Christmas in the nation's eighth-largest school district, Hillsborough deputies and Tampa police officers fanned out across the county to provide an extra layer of security.

Some of them were present only at the beginning and end of school. Officials on Wednesday would not divulge whether the officers and deputies would remain on school grounds throughout the day when classes resume next week.

School board members think the extra show of law enforcement is a good idea — at least for now.

"I think it's something the parents and the children are going to feel more comfortable with," said April Griffin, chairwoman of the school board. "I have spoken to some parents, and they were telling me their children were afraid to go to school but that seeing the officers there before Christmas made them feel safer."

"I don't think it's a bad idea to reassure parents that we are alert while we have a more reasoned conversation about what to do in the future," said board member Candy Olson.

Any decisions to boost manpower permanently at schools will be costly for the school district and law enforcement, which typically split the costs of school resource officers.

The school district pays Tampa police about $1.5 million a year for its share of the salary burden for 29 such positions.

The district also pays about $2.6 million to the sheriff's office for 50 positions in schools located in county jurisdiction.

In Pasco County, deputies will not be posted at elementary schools when classes resume Tuesday.

In Pinellas County, no extra security is planned, though deputies will be checking in regularly to "make their presence known," said Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Sgt. David DiSano. (813) 259-7999