Parkland's County Votes to Hire Armed Guards for Schools

by | June 28, 2018

By Colleen Wright

Reluctantly going back on its decision to arm only sworn law enforcement officers with weapons, the Broward County School Board unanimously approved hiring armed, non-sworn guards to protect schools and to comply with a new state law.

Board members' votes at Tuesday's meeting came with two caveats: That the role of the "armed safe school officer," now officially created, perform no other duties except fend off active threats, and to prefer that candidates have four years of law enforcement or military experience in the past 10 years.

Board member Robin Bartleman, who suggested the former revision and backed the latter on preferring law enforcement experience, blamed the Legislature for putting boards in a predicament that doesn't allow enough time and funding to hire sworn school resource officers to staff schools.

"Honestly, it's like putting Paul Blart the mall cop in a school with a gun," she said. "I'd like to thank this board and staff for making it palatable."

Board member Rosalind Osgood was particularly concerned with whether the guardians' weapons would be concealed. Superintendent Robert Runcie said no final decision on that was made but would be worked out as the program is implemented.

The board's blessing gives the district the green light to start advertising to hire about 80 armed guards to be placed mostly in elementary schools. The district is also working on renewing its agreements with the Broward County Sheriff's Office and 16 municipal police departments, which footed much of the bill for staffing 166 school resource officers in mostly middle and high schools last school year, and expects to hire more school resource officers by the start of school Aug. 15. There are 234 traditional public schools in the district.

But in case not enough guards are hired in time -- or agreements fall through -- the district is also looking at contingency plans. Those could include re-purposing 18 certified law enforcement officers already hired by the district or paying cops overtime pay.

"We're going to find ways to make it happen," Runcie told reporters during a break in the meeting.

Board members did not discuss how any of the 93 charter schools in the district plan to arm their schools. They will receive $1.4 million in additional Safe Schools funding to comply with the same legislative mandate.

Broward received an additional $8 million in Safe Schools funding from the state to cover salaries of armed guards, who are significantly less expensive than staffing a school resource officer at every school, which costs $100,000 per SRO annually.

If the district were to staff an SRO in every school, it would cost $11 million to $16 million and could result in a funding shortfall of $4 million to $8 million, according to a board presentation from last week.

The board voted to place a property tax referendum on the August ballot for school resource officer and school security staff funding in addition to increased compensation to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. If passed, the referendum is projected to generate $93 million.

On Tuesday, the board unanimously approved spending 20 percent of funds raised by the referendum, if it passes, on security, including school resource officers and security staff. The bulk of the funds -- 72 percent -- would be spent on compensation for teachers and school-related staff including bus drivers, assistants and food service workers. The rest would be spent on "essential programs" such as additional guidance counselors, social workers and behavioral staff.

The average homeowner with a home valued at $239,000 would pay $119 more in the first year, and the average condo owner with a home worth $130,000 would pay $66. The funds would be available July 1, 2019. Discussion on how the referendum funds would be allocated continued at Tuesday's meeting.

The board also had to reverse course so the Sheriff's Office could accept funding from the $67 million the state allocated to training and equipping guardians, going back on an April 10 vote against participating in the program. Training will begin July 16.

Board member Donna Korn made it clear the board was not changing its position that only sworn law enforcement should be armed, but that it must amend its past vote to receive those funds.

New state law requires an armed guard at every school, and although the law allows for school staff who aren't exclusively classroom teachers to carry weapons, Broward created its role specifically for protecting students, staff and visitors against active threats. The job description calls for using "the appropriate level of force to stop, disrupt or eliminate physical threats to students, staff and visitors on school property" as well as "use and care for firearms (and) communications equipment."

The new law comes after the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which former student Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 people.

The 10-month job pays $25,000 to $32,619, or $17 to $22 an hour. Minimum qualifications include a standard high school diploma or GED, two years of sworn law enforcement experience in "good standing" within the past 10 years and all the requirements outlined in Senate Bill 7026: a valid license to carry a concealed weapon or firearm, completing 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety, passing a psychological evaluation and passing initial and random drug tests.

Runcie said the minimum of two years' experience was necessary to net as many armed guards before the start of school.

"The reason why I offer that is we don't know how limited our pool is going to be, and we don't have time to come back to the board in the middle of the summer and say 'Hey, this isn't working,' " he said, vowing to hire the most experienced people first.

The board's decisions on the guardian program came minutes after Runcie announced that Andrew Medina and David Taylor, two campus monitors at Stoneman Douglas, would not be renewed for reappointment. Runcie said that decision was made as their actions during the Feb. 14 massacre are under review, and not because Medina was previously investigated for inappropriate conduct toward students, one of whom was victim Meadow Pollack.

Campus monitors and security specialists are eligible to apply to be a guardian if they meet the requirements.

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