By JULIE B. MAGLIO
The Hernando County School Board has asked district staff to investigate the options for school security with implementation beginning next school year (August 2020). Currently the school district contracts with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, assigning one school resource officer (SRO) to each public school (23 in total), plus two command staff and two officers that float between schools. On Oct. 8, 2019, school district staff will recommend that the school board form and operate its own police force after having examined the options. They will also recommend that if the school board desires a school guardian program, then it should be in addition to the district’s SRO police force or the Sheriff’s Office SRO deputies.
Superintendent John Stratton stressed that the district has a great relationship with Hernando County Sheriff’s Office and the recommendation for a school district police force is based on specialization.
Superintendent Stratton emphasized, “The biggest difference is that this will be their job throughout the entire year. This is their sole focus- school safety.” He said that they would not be working detail or traffic during the year.
However, the idea did come as a surprise to the Sheriff, when Stratton first approached him.
“I was completely surprised when Superintendent (John) Stratton advised me on September 25, 2019, that the school administration was seriously considering starting their own police department. I believe the Sheriff’s Office and School Resource deputies do a great job at a similar or lower price than can be accomplished by a school police department. The decision is ultimately that of the parents, teachers and other residents, through those they elect to represent them on the School Board. We, of course, will work and support the administration in whatever direction the School Board decides. My ultimate goal has always been the safety and protection of our students, who are our most vulnerable citizens,” stated Sheriff Nienhus.
Another reason for Stratton’s recommendation is flexibility. The school district states, “With the district employing the School Resource Officers directly, we can shift assignments, move coverage areas to meet the greatest needs, anticipate and cover special events in a hurry. We will have more flexibility with the services and resources. For the same annual cost that we are paying the Sheriff’s Office, we can have additional positions and employ officers for 12 months rather than 10 months.”
“We will still have an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office and work together,” explained Heather Martin, the school district’s Assistant Superintendent of Business & Support Services. She said that there would have to be mutual aid agreements so that the Sheriff’s Office could provide additional support if needed.
Marion County Schools established their own police department in July of this year saying that they will now have the ability to apply for security grants that are only for law enforcement agencies. They also will be able to receive national, state and local law enforcement alerts that could not be shared with the district before. Marion County chose to keep their 51 SROs deployed at each school from the city and county police forces.
In February 2019, Clay County School Board voted to create its own police force. Clay Today reports that the move to do so would allow them to have an SRO in each school instead of a mix of SROs and school safety officers.
Other school districts with their own police departments include:
Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Broward, Citrus, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Nassau, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Putnam and Sarasota.
The FY 2020-2021 projected cost for the Sheriff’s Office contract which provides 27 personnel for 10 months is $2,375,956.40. This includes other costs such as summer school coverage, additional detail, board meetings and a 5% annual increase.
School district staff estimate an annual cost of an internal police department for FY 2020-2021 at $2,375,082.81. This would provide 13 SROs as 12 month employees and 10 SROs as 11 month employees, four officers that float between schools, a secretary and four command staff as well as other items such as dues, overtime, incentives, training and travel expenses.
However, there will be a significant startup cost to consider as the department will need all the necessary equipment to function. The school district estimates startup costs to be around $830,000 - a majority being capital costs: $644,849.00. If vehicles are purchased for all SROs that would be an additional $647,000.
The school guardian program was established in 2018 through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act. According to the Florida Department of Education, “Guardians are armed personnel who aid in the prevention or abatement of active assailant incidents on school premises. They are either school employees who volunteer to serve in addition to official job duties or personnel hired for the specific purpose of serving as a school guardian. Guardians must pass psychological and drug screenings, and successfully complete a minimum of 144 hours of training. The 2019 Legislature expanded the Guardian program to include Class D and G licensed security guards as well as certain school district or charter school employees who volunteer to participate in the program.” The Hernando County School District estimates that if a guardian was hired for each high school at $18.00 per hour- the total cost would be $194,496.96. The Sheriff’s Office can apply for grants to offset the cost of training and screening.
There will be much for the school board to consider at the Tuesday Oct. 8 workshop which will be at 2PM at the District Office Board Room: 919 North Broad Street in Brooksville.
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