When the more than 140 principals of Hillsborough County elementary schools get together, they rarely agree 100 percent on an issue.
But when it comes to debating whether having an armed security officer in each elementary school is a good idea, they are unanimously for it.
“It’s not often we agree on something,” Joanne Baumgartner, principal of Mitchell Elementary, told school board members this afternoon. “But we need your support. We need you to put our hats on for a while. We’re on the front lines every day.”
The issue of security in schools has been at the forefront since the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 students and six adults dead.
In Hillsborough County, armed police officers and deputies have been a staple at middle and high schools for years, along with nearly two dozen elementary schools. Since Sandy Hook, they have been added to elementary schools for the rest of the year; Superintendent MaryEllen Elia wants to hire more than 130 more officers to make the move permanent.
At a workshop today on school security, school board members listened for three hours to the pros and cons of such a move.
They listened to Michael Dorn, a national school security expert, tell them it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to physically fortify their schools – with fences, bulletproof glass and other remedies – against threats. Or they could spend a few million dollars to add an armed law enforcement officer to each school instead.
They heard stories of principals and teachers being berated and threatened on a nearly daily basis – and with no one to call for help who’s less than 10 minutes or more away.
Baumgartner, who until Sandy Hook has not had a resource officer, told the board that if she is being held responsible for the safety at her school, she needs a law enforcement presence to do that.
Joyce Miles, the principal of Oak Park Elementary whose school has had a resource officer for years, said the first thing she looks for when she arrives at school each morning is the presence of her resource officer’s car.
“Then I know I have the backup and support I need to carry me through the day,” Miles said. “I need him every day.”
Lewis Brinson, the assistant superintendent for administration, urged board members to spend the money to hire extra officers for elementary schools.
“They are the only group without a first responder,” he said. “This is overdue.”
To prove his point, Brinson asked one of the district’s female elementary school principals to stand opposite David Friedberg, the chief of security for the nation’s eighth-largest school district.
“If a person is coming to do harm to our kids, who should be the first responder?” Brinson asked.
“These situations occur each and every day, and they’re never going to stop,” he added. “I will never tell any of my principals to be the first responder to an active shooter or an active threat. That’s not their job.”
Board members, who in January rejected spending $2 million for this year and $4 million for next year out of the contingency fund, are still struggling with the budgetary impact.
“This is a lot of money. We’re going to give something up,” said Cindy Stuart. “What is that something going to be?”
“It’s about prioritizing,” countered board member Doretha Edgecomb. “What are we giving up? I hope it’s not a life.”