School Board Rejects Security Guards for Westchase Schools
The board turned down Superintendent MaryEllen Elia's recommendation to hire 130 security officers in Hillsborough County.
Like a lot of moms around the country, the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., stood as a wakeup call for Tampa resident Bridgitte Kramer.
"I'm very concerned about the safety of my children," said Kramer, whose children attend Oak Grove Elementary School on North Armenia Avenue.
In fact, Kramer was so alarmed by the shooting, she sat through a five-hour Hillsborough County School Board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 15, with her two antsy children in tow, to find out if the board would agree to hire armed security guards for public elementary schools.
It was a sacrifice Kramer willingly made for her own kids as well as all the other children in Hillsborough County schools. As president of the Hillsborough County Council of PTAs-PTSAs, representing all of the Parent-Teacher Associations in the county, Kramer said she had a special interest in the outcome of the meeting.
School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia was proposing to spend $700,000 in school district contingency funds to hire, train and put 130 armed private security guards on duty at all of the county's elementary schools.
Elia said she felt it was a necessary expenditure to ensure the safety of the district's youngest students.
Although the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department agreed to post deputies and officers at elementary schools in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, the offer only extends to the end of the school year.
"We need to do something going forward beyond this year. I really wish it wasn't necessary," Elia told the board, explaining that the plan was part of a multifaceted approach that also included hiring a national security consultant to assess the safety of all county schools at a cost of $8,500, ongoing crisis management training for staff for $10,000 and increased security measures at schools to the tune of $1.2 million.
But school board members said they weren't prepared to commit an estimated $4 million a year for what member Stacy White characterized as a "knee-jerk reaction."
"We have to be very careful to not allow an individual who did a terrible thing in Connecticut to allow us to have tunnel vision," said White. Instead, he suggested that the school district take a harder look at ways to secure schools and fund safety improvements.
He said Elia's recommendation "lacks detail," including the specific duties of the security officers, training and background checks.
"This goes far beyond guns," he said. "We're facing the issue before us because of a societal failure" that includes the prevalence of violent video games and television.
"I have no inherent problem with armed security but I don't want to drop $4 million without a thorough analysis," he said.
School board member Carol Kurdell agreed.
"We have to look at the whole spectrum for providing a safe environment," she said. She believes crisis management training for staff is "an absolute necessity at some point." But she also said the county should look at providing more guidance counselors and social workers in the schools.
Instead of approving Elia's overall recommendations, she suggested the school district get input from national security expert Michael Dorn, form an expanded committee of security experts and members of the community to look at safety issues and then hold a school board workshop by the end of February.
Her suggestion received the board's unanimous approval. School board members approved hiring Dorn by a 4-3 vote but rejected Elia's recommendation to hire security officers, provide crisis management training for staff and increase security at the schools until the expanded committee has a chance to examine those issues.
The board's decision received mixed reviews from those attending the board meeting.
Nick Plummer, a security guard from Brandon, said he has no objections to putting school resource officers in all the schools but begged the school board not to hire outside security companies whose interests are in profits, not the welfare of children.
Fellow Brandon resident Kali Crum seconded Plummer's comments.
"Private companies just don't have oversight or accountibility," she said.
Valrico mother Kelly Scott said she doesn't want her 5-year-old attending schools with armed guards.
"I don't think we need a military environment to send our kids to kindergarten," she said.
Brandon resident Tom Allyn, now retired after 26 years with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, was one of the county's first school resource officers, stationed at Brandon High School.
He noted that his duties not only included school security but he served as an educator and a mentor. He said private security officers won't have that level of commitment to the students.
"You're talking about spending all of this money for something that may never happen," he said. "It's like putting a Band-Aid on a wound you expect to get in the future."
Largo resident Mark Klutho applauded the move, saying he was concerned about the message armed security guards would send to impressionable young children.
"This is crazy, sending a bunch of Annie Oakleys and Wild Bills to guard schools," he said.
Sulphur Springs Elementary School is one of a few elementary schools in the county that already has a full-time school resource officer.
Principal Julie Scardino said she'd recommend placing SROs in all elementary schools.
"He is not seen as an armed guard," she said. "He's a member of our school community. He's built a relationship with all of our students, walks the campus daily, provides lessons on stranger danger and anti-bullying, and he helps us feel safe."