Mandate to hire armed school officers challenges schools

Mandate to hire armed school officers challenges schools

(Fla.) Local educational agencies are scrambling to meet deadlines before the fall term begins to enhance school security and hire armed guards as required under legislation passed earlier this year.

In the wake of the February attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott agreed on a package of security improvements that included new gun sale restrictions, money for mental health services and a series of mandates on districts aimed at making classrooms safer.

By July 1, school superintendents were required to designate a district school safety specialist. By Aug. 1, LEAs need to have completed a security risk assessment for each campus—an evaluation that must be undertaken in concert with local law enforcement.

By Sept. 1, schools are required to have established a threat assessment team that includes experts in mental health counseling, academic instruction, law enforcement and school administration.

But perhaps the most problematic of the new safety mandates is the mid-August deadline on districts to provide an armed guard at every school site—but with little additional state funding.

“If I wanted to lower class sizes by hiring another teacher, I can’t do that because now I’ve got to pay for that officer,” said Richard Ramsay, principal at the Manatee School of Arts and Sciences in Bradenton.

Speaking to the Bradenton Herald earlier this week, Ramsay called the legislative order a “knee jerk” reaction. “They didn’t put a lot of time and effort into planning things out, looking at different accountability aspects or the funding of it.”

The Broward County School Board ran into the same spending problem, having to renege on a promise made earlier this year that only sworn law enforcement officers would be used on school campuses. 

In their June meeting, the board voted to begin hiring 80 “armed safe school officers” from outside law enforcement agencies. The new officers will be mostly assigned to elementary schools.

The district is also working out new agreements with the Broward County Sheriff and 16 local police departments to staff officers at middle and high schools.

To pay for new program, as well as other staffing needs, the board has also placed a property tax measure on the ballot that is expected to generate $93 million annually.

In Duval County, superintendent Diana Greene told her board that only 24 of the 107 safety officers hired will be ready by the time students return to class on Aug. 13.

The problem, she said, is that the district must recruit, screen and train the new staff members in too short a time period.

Parents, many of whom are deeply concerned about school safety after Parkland, are as equally worried about new armed guards on campus that don’t have adequate training.

“The thought of a school safety assistant in school with my 5-year-old is frightening,” said parent Katie Wisner, to the Florida Times-Union, this week. “Duval County Public Schools would never allow an uncertified teacher to teach in our schools, so why would you allow an un-sworn person to wield a weapon and be in charge of safety?”

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