BRADENTON -- After questions were raised about the legality of having private, armed security officers on campus, the Manatee County School District will bring unarmed officers onto 31 elementary school campuses until it gets clarity from the state.
The district has asked the Florida Attorney General's office to interpret the law before allowing officers from Sarasota Security Patrol to carry guns in the elementary schools.
"After consulting with outside legal counsel and our staff attorney, it is our opinion that there is no prohibition by statute that prevents armed security guards being placed within public schools," Superintendent Rick Mills said in a statement. "However, the statute upon which the district relies is in a gray area."
The officers will be unarmed until further notice, officials said.
Two different state statutes provide conflicting views as to whether the armed security officers are legal. One state statute, 1006.12, 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 states school safety officers shall be law enforcement officers, certified under a number of provisions and employed by either a law enforcement agency or the school district. The officers being used by the Manatee school district are contracted employees paid by Sarasota Security Patrol.
Another statute, 790.115, allows a district to authorize individuals to carry weapons in support of "school-sanctioned activities."
Last week, the Florida Department of Education referred questions about the Manatee plan back to district officials.
Representatives from Sarasota Security Patrol have been working with district officials to finalize a security plan since the Manatee County School Board approved a $1 million per-year, three-year contract at a contentious board meeting Sept. 9.
Wednesday, nearly one month into the new school year, marks the first day for the new security plan, which has come under scrutiny since it was announced July 31. The plan has been criticized for being rushed, for having a flawed request for proposal process that favored Sarasota Security Patrol, which has previously worked for the district, and for not being the best way to spend district money to provide safety and security.
The three school board members who approved the plan and district officials said safety and security are the top priority in the community and having an armed officer in the school is better than having no security in the schools.
Board members Julie Aranibar, Barbara Harvey and Karen Carpenter on Sept. 9 voted yes to the contract, with board members Bob Gause and Dave "Watchdog" Miner dissenting.
When reached Tuesday, board members Harvey and Carpenter said they were pleased the district was restricting the gun access until an authority weighed in. Both board members said there would be plenty of work for the officers to do without the guns.
"The presence on campus with or without a gun will make a difference when it comes to addressing safety of our children," Harvey said.
Carpenter said this may be a "blessing in disguise" for the district to move slowly and double check.
Board member Bob Gause, who said he voted no on the contract because there might be better ways to spend money on safety and security, said Tuesday that delaying the implementation of guns was the prudent thing to do.
Incoming board member Charlie Kennedy, who will take over Harvey's seat, said he would have voted no on the proposal. Kennedy echoed points made by Gause, saying armed officers may not be the best expenditure of district money to provide safety and security.
"This is just sort of a stop-gap approach," he said.
Miner, a vocal critic of the plan from the start, said he does not agree with the district's interpretation that the action is legal and said there is no clear statute or case law to allow this.
"I don't think they should have guns until there's a court case or other judgment that establishes that having armed guards that are not law enforcement officers is permissible," Miner said.
Miner also added the plan should not have been brought to the board until the administration already had legal clearance.
Board candidate hopeful Mary Cantrell, who is challenging Aranibar for the District 5 seat, said she was puzzled at the speed the district moved in implementing the program.
"I'm a little disappointed the board did not want to do a little more to make sure this was the right move to take," she said. Cantrell has previously said she prefers to have law enforcement officials in the schools as opposed to the private armed officers.
Aranibar could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the district released a frequently asked questions list on its website with more details on how the program will run. District officials did not respond to questions posed by the Bradenton Herald.
District information released Tuesday said most elementary schools will introduce the officers -- which the district is calling Community Security Officers, or CSO for short -- on the televised morning announcements. One officer will be assigned to each school.
All the district's elementary schools except Palmetto Elementary and Anna Maria Elementary will have a security officer from Sarasota Security Patrol. Holmes Beach Police Department has provided Anna Maria with a school resource officer for the last 15 years. This year, the police department asked the school district to contribute $52,000 toward the cost of the officer. The district is contributing $25,000 to the Holmes Beach Police Department.
Originally, Palmetto was set to be covered by a security officer, but on Monday, officials from the district and the Palmetto Police Department announced the elementary school would be covered by an SRO, free of charge, from the Palmetto Police Department this year. Palmetto police are hoping to work out a contract next year where the district contributes to the cost.
The district's middle schools and high schools are covered by SROs, the cost of which is shared by the school district and local law enforcement agencies. The district has said providing SROs at all the elementary schools is too costly.
Mills first announced the district's plan to bring in armed officers during a budget meeting July 31. A request for proposal sent out Aug. 4 was due back Aug. 18. A copy of the request for proposal was linked on the board agenda Aug. 26, the day the board was set to award the contract. The board delayed voting on the contract, so the public and the board members could have more time to review the request for proposal. On Sept. 9, the district held a workshop on the issue and approved the contract with a split vote.
According to the district's FAQ, the officers can physically detain adults until law enforcement arrives under certain circumstances, but are not allowed to physically detain or apprehend students, according to district information.
The officers will "assume responsibility" during emergencies until a supervisor or law enforcement official arrives, according to the district information.
The security officers will have the same rights as law enforcement officials, other than the power of arrest. The armed security officers can perform citizen's arrests, according to information provided by Troy Pumphrey, the district's professional standards investigator during the Sept. 9 board workshop.
The 32 officers have all passed a Level II background check that includes fingerprinting, according to the district. The district also posted that each officer completed the training module for the state and district-mandated course on child abuse.
On Monday, the district held a roundtable discussion with the officers and members of local law enforcement. The Manatee County Sheriff's Office had a major and a lieutenant at the meeting, said Sheriff Brad Steube. Steube said he did not attend the meeting. Neither the public nor the press were invited to the meeting.
Steube said he is a proponent of having law enforcement SROs in the schools as opposed to the armed officers.
"There's a bond and a trust created between the SROs and the kids," Steube said.
If the district wants to work with the sheriff's office to increase the number of SROs next year, those conversations need to start early in the school year, Steube said.
"That's what I would like, but I don't see any talk of that happening," Steube said.
Steube said the three-year contract with Sarasota Security Patrol makes it seem as though the district does not want to increase the number of SROs. The three-year contract does include a 30-day termination clause, according to officials.
On Tuesday, the district hosted a gathering of the new officers and the elementary principals to formally welcome them. Neither the press nor the public were invited.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.