EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated on Sept. 16.
BRADENTON -- After a contentious school board debate ending in a split vote, the school district has yet to publicly release details about how it will bring a private force of armed security guards into elementary schools, including how they will be armed and whether the private force falls within state guidelines.
The guards will start on Wednesday, according to an email sent Thursday to school board members, which the Bradenton Herald obtained Friday afternoon after being told by several board members and district officials that no firm date was in place.
In a 3-2 vote Tuesday, the board approved a $1 million per-year, three-year contract to Sarasota Security Patrol to provide armed guards in 32 of the district's 33 elementary schools. The district's rushed time line has come under heavy scrutiny, even as board members Julie Aranibar, Karen Carpenter and Barbara Harvey voted to move forward. Board members Bob Gause and Dave "Watchdog" Miner voted against the plan.
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The district is planning to create a frequently asked question list, according to the email sent by district spokesman Steve Valley to board members. The email to board members states the frequently asked question list would be created and posted on the school district's home page Thursday or Friday. The list was not yet posted Friday evening.
At the close of business day Friday, Valley acknowledged security guards will start on Wednesday and that officials with the security company had visited 20 elementary schools this week.
But Valley said Friday that the district did not have answers to all the questions sent by the Bradenton Herald. District officials did answer questions including what weapons the officers will carry -- saying only that they will be armed -- or whether information will be sent to parents concerning the program, saying that is being worked out with principals. The district will depend on the contracted security company to conduct all background checks on its security guards. The district will verify information through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Valley said in his email. The district's human resources department is expected to confirm that they have received the necessary training, he added.
Whether the district can legally hire a private security force to work within schools has also been called into question and has not been fully answered by the district or by the state.
Troy Pumphrey, the district's professional standards investigator, said "no response at this time," in answer to the Herald's email Friday morning. Pumphrey currently is in the lead role within the district in this project. The school board recently approved adding a director of safety and security, but no one has been hired yet.
According to Valley's email to board members, the district is planning a roundtable discussion on Monday with local law enforcement's supervisors for school resource officers and district leaders. The district is also planning a public event on Tuesday to welcome the officers before they start in the schools on Wednesday.
A clause in the district's request for proposal said the company must be able to start within 48 hours of the contract award, which prompted some board members and members of the public to think the officers would be stationed in schools by Friday at the latest. On Wednesday, the day after the board's decision, representatives from the company sat down with district officials to discuss contract issues, which satisfied the 48-hour requirement, Valley said.
When reached Friday, board members said they had not received information from district officials concerning the security officers since Tuesday's meeting. Both Gause and Miner were under the impression that, given the contract's 48-hour clause, the officers would be in the schools at the end of this week or beginning of the upcoming week.
"I kind of expect them to be there on Monday," Gause said Friday afternoon. He added he hadn't seen information from the district on a start date yet, although the email was sent to the board Thursday afternoon.
"Frankly, I don't think they're ready to start," Miner said. "There's all sorts of questions that haven't really been digested."
Harvey, a vocal proponent of the plan from the day it was announced, said she was pleased security officials were visiting the schools before the guards are assigned.
"It's important to get the right people in the right place," she said Friday. Harvey also said she did not know the exact start date of the officers.
Aranibar said she's been getting updates from district officials on meetings with school principals to go over each school's specific needs. Aranibar did not know of a firm start date for the officers, either. Aranibar said the district will monitor the program as it moves forward and if adjustments need to be made they will do so.
"Each thing you change takes time to assimilate," shes aid. "The board is going to monitor this as we move forward."
Carpenter, one of the three "yes" votes, did voice concerns over some areas of the contract during the meeting. On Friday, Carpenter said the superintendent was working with company officials to update the contract. Carpenter also said she did not know the firm start date.
Pumphrey set out expectations during Tuesday's school board workshop, the first time the responsibilities were explained in such detail. Pumphrey described the overall responsibilities of the officers as: assuring the safety of persons, the security and protection of school property and to respond to emergency situations or conditions and provide assistance or take appropriate actions.
"We decided that providing an instant response to an immediate threat was paramount to protect our children," Pumphrey said during the workshop.
According to Pumphrey's presentation, the guards will patrol school grounds, conduct regular checks to ensure building safety, report damage, monitor pedestrian traffic, request routine departmental services, control hallways and perimeters, and conduct traffic details both in the morning and afternoon.
"Security officers shall be visible but not obtrusive," Pumphrey's presentation states.
It is still unclear what weapons the officers will carry.
Having the officers in the school will allow the school staff to focus more on teaching and education, Pumphrey said.
"It's allowing the staff to focus on students," he said.
A source of concern from the public and Miner has been the background, experience and qualifications of the officers. The request for proposal required one-year minimum of security experience, but said the district would prefer companies who could provide employees with more experience.
The 32 guards provided by Sarasota Security Patrol will have 15 officers with more than 10 years of law enforcement experience, according to Pumphrey's presentation. A total of 25 of the officers will have at least one year of law enforcement experience. Five of the officers have military experience. Two officers have both law enforcement and military experience, the presentation says.
Sarasota Security Patrol says it conducts background checks on all employees. The company uses a third-party source to conduct searches for address history, national criminal searches, national sex offender registry and social security validations.
Chad Ritchie, the owner of the company, was arrested in 1996 on a felony charge of impersonating a police officer. The charge cannot be found looking through police records. The charges were expunged from Ritchie's records, but can be found through the legal database LexisNexis. Ritchie was 18 at the time of his arrest.
He was arrested after he hooked up a blue emergency light to his car and pulled over a woman. He had handcuffs, a weapon and a badge and asked for her driver's license, according to records. Witnesses thought his actions were suspicious and called law enforcement.
District officials were not aware of Ritchie's record until Tuesday, the day the board voted 3-2 to approve the contract.
Questions of legality
Most school districts in Florida either contract with local law enforcement officials to provide SROs, or districts specifically train in-house employees to work security.
Manatee County will be one of the first districts to have private security guards providing security on public campuses.
Florida Statute chapter 1006.12 deals with school resource officers and school safety officers. The statute states district school boards can establish school resource officer programs through a cooperative agreement with law enforcement agencies or in accordance with a subsection of the statute.
The subsection says that school safety officers shall be law enforcement officers, certified under a number of provisions and employed by either a law enforcement agency or by the school district.
The officers being brought in by the school district to provide security in the elementary schools are not sworn law enforcement officers and are not employed by the school board, but are employed by Sarasota Security Patrol and working with the school board through a contract.
The rights of the officers have been a constant concern for board member Miner, who asked during the meeting whether the officers were allowed to arrest people.
"By statute, they can't be called school security officers," Miner said, when the issue was brought to him by the Bradenton Herald. "This is why the rush is such a bad idea. I'm not familiar with this."
Representatives from the Florida Department of Education cited another statute when questioned by the Herald. Section 790.001 allows a district to authorize individuals to carry weapons in support of school-sanctioned activities.
"Check with the district for information related to their plan and how they are interpreting the law," said Cheryl Etters, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education.
It is unclear whether the district has looked into the legality of this program.
When questioned during the workshop on Tuesday, Pumphrey said the security officers have all law enforcement powers, except the power of arrest.
"They do have all the same rights over law enforcement, other than the power of arrest, other than a citizen's arrest. They can detain and they also work off of -- law enforcement needs probable cause -- they can work off of reasonable suspicion," Pumphrey told the board Tuesday. "We also expect that the security companies, as well as law enforcement, are actively engaged and working as a partnership. I don't think that's an unreasonable proposition."
A rushed process
The implementation of the district's plan has caused community outcry from the start, especially from Miner, who repeatedly called the officers "rent-a-cops" and said the plan was not in the best interest of the community.
The plan was announced by Superintendent Rick Mills on July 31 during a budget meeting, where Mills noted the district had extra money in the fund balance to support this type of plan. A request for proposal went out on Aug. 4 and the requests were opened and scored the week of Aug. 18. The contract was first brought to the board for approval on Aug. 26 but was successfully tabled, as board members said they did not have sufficient time to review the request for proposal and related documents.
"I don't think the discussion about this ended Tuesday night, and I don't think it should," Miner said Thursday.
Gause also indicated at Tuesday's board meeting that the district's discussion of safety and security shouldn't end with the implementation of the security officers.
"There is a more important way for us to expend this money," Gause said. "I just don't think it's the proper prioritization of funds for safety and security."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.