TAMPA – When David Friedberg hired on as security chief with the Hillsborough County school district more than 20 years ago, there were no surveillance cameras in schools, alarm systems and security fencing were scattered, and visitors could come and go as they pleased.
School security was largely an afterthought in day-to-day campus life.
Today, the equipment and procedures designed to keep campuses safe are as constant a presence as the ABCs.
What hasn’t changed as the 60-year-old Friedberg prepares to retire this year is the call to balance these two priorities.
After the latest school massacre — 26 shot dead in December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — Hillsborough schools moved to fill what some leaders saw as a security gap: High schools and middle schools have designated city police and county deputies, but coverage at elementary schools is sporadic.
Now, the district is in the process of stationing its own officers in more elementary schools — drawing criticism from civil rights advocates who say the move provides little protection but will feed a growing “school-to-prison” pipeline with more student arrests.
Friedberg has seen two decades of community reaction as the district has ramped up its security measures, like the time in 1999 when it started doing random searches with metal detectors. There was pushback.
“I remember saying, ‘God forbid something happens and you’ll ask why we didn’t,’” he said. “The next day was Columbine. No one has asked me since.”
Making the transition from community law enforcement to education took some getting used to for Friedberg, he said.
“I want to see all criminals arrested. Most of our kids are not. The biggest adjustment I had was understanding the difference.”
Friedberg is retiring from his $101,000 a year job after a career that spanned 42 years to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren.
He came to law enforcement after fumbling around for a while.
Disinterested and unfocused, he graduated from high school in New Jersey and immediately joined the Air Force. He opted for a job in highest demand.
“What they needed was a security policeman,” Friedberg said. “I didn’t care for it at first. It wasn’t what I thought I wanted to do with my life. As years went on, I went to the police academy as an instructor.”
After teaching and earning a bachelor’s degree in occupational education, with an emphasis in criminal justice, from Southwest Texas State University, he realized he couldn’t see himself doing anything else.
“I’ve earned a living doing something I love. How many people can say they’ve truly enjoyed what they do every day?”
One of the first moves he made as school district security chief was to create a district crisis management plan. Today, each school adapts its own plan to a district template that’s stored digitally.
A turning point for school security, Friedberg said, came after a series of school shootings nationwide in the late 1990s.
In May 1998, two students were killed and 22 others injured by a 15-year-old shooter in a cafeteria in Springfield, Ore. Less than a month later in Richmond, Va., a teacher and a guidance counselor were shot and injured by a 14-year-old boy in a school hallway.
Then, in April 1999, 14 students, including the two shooters, and one teacher were killed and 23 more were wounded in the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
“All of these things have brought school security to the forefront,” Friedberg said. “Society’s changed.”
There have been nearly 90 school shootings in the United States from 2000 to 2013.
Real-time news reports of the incidents, Friedberg has come to understand, makes people feel as if it is happening in their own back yards.
Teaching and learning today take place under the watchful eye of video cameras monitored by security staff, behind locked doors that are buzzed open only when visitors pass inspection, surrounded by tight fences and some 2,500 alarm systems across hundreds of school buildings. That compares to 600 alarm systems when Friedberg was hired in 1993.
“Back then — more reactive,” Friedberg said. “Now, it’s proactive. I realized we want to be warm and welcome, but we need to control who’s coming on our campuses. It’s kind of like your home – you welcome all visitors, but come through the front door.”
Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell, who has served on the board 22 years, has watched school security escalate since she was a student in local schools.
“You would have seen no fencing, no obvious resource officer,” Kurdell said. “Everybody knew each other. We had three high schools – Plant, Jefferson and Hillsborough. I went to Robinson the year it opened as a ninth-grader. It never crossed my mind we would be in (this) position 20 years down the road, looking at security in an entirely different way.”
Whatever role added security played, crime is actually down in Hillsborough schools even as the district has grown. It’s a trend seen across U.S. society.
District enrollment has risen from 149,000 when Friedberg took over in 1993-94 to more than 200,000 students this year. The number of schools has risen from 149 to 270.
Criminal mischief incidents are down from 868 to 47 during the same period. Firearm offenses are down from 34 to five.
And burglaries are down from 450 to 42 last school year.
In the early 2000s, more than 2,500 school arrests were made per year in Hillsborough County, Friedberg said. Now, school arrests are down to less than 1,000 per year.
Friedberg attributes the drop to a combination of factors.
“I think it is increased number of patrols on the roads and more cooperative community partnerships. We have more eyes and ears looking to protect our campuses and our kids. It’s a joint effort with local law enforcement, school security and our community.”
As the district has grown and security has moved to the top of the priority list, Friedberg’s department has become a much bigger operation. He has 137 employees today, up from 47 20 years ago. And it has a budget of about $4.3 million per year compared to less than $1 million in 1993.
Today, 13 of those security employees spend their days in the department’s command center, equipped with three big monitors on the wall showing video from any district school or administrative building.
And more security forces are on the way.
Earlier this school year, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office secured a $1.2 million federal grant to place 10 more deputies as school resource officers in elementary schools. Friedberg said the deputies started patrolling 20 schools last week.
Like officers from the Tampa Police Department assigned to city schools, the sheriff’s deputies work closely with Friedberg and the district security department but not for him.
In addition, the school board last month voted 4-3 to spend $815,000 on the first of a four-year plan to phase in more of the district’s own security officers at all elementary schools.
The move has broad support from school principals. But the American Civil Liberties Union has raised objections, echoing a call from President Obama this month for schools to break what he described as the school to prison pipeline — students, chiefly minority students, who end up in the juvenile justice system on a track to fail.
And posting officers on all public campuses will do nothing to prevent the school shootings that spurred the initiative, said Mike Pheneger, president of the state ACLU and chairman of its local branch.
“When you overemphasize the policing aspect, you’re also going to overemphasize the arresting of students,” Pheneger said. “We need to have better procedures and agreements between the school system and the deputies in schools about how to handle things.”
More arrests, he said, is not the answer.
“That is enough to wreck the lives of lots of people,” Pheneger said.
One possible solution would be to shift misdemeanor drug offenses from criminal to civil offenses, as officers have done with other once-criminal infractions, Pheneger said — a change the security chief would support.
Another solution is to make sure officers stationed in schools get more training in conflict resolution, Pheneger said.
As he steps away from the job, Friedberg sees campus officers as an indispensable component in overall school security. They need to work harder now, he said, to form positive relationships with students.
“Sometimes, you just can’t argue with the critics,” Friedberg said. “If we tried to pull them, the communities would go nuts. They’re part of the school culture. I’ve had 19 armed officers in elementary schools for years. This isn’t about power, it’s about protection.”
He plans to keep providing that protection until the district hires his replacement.
“I had no idea what I was getting into 20 years ago,” he said.
“I think we’ve done a great job. I believe I’m leaving the department in a better position than I found it.”