Cops should be the only ones with guns on Manatee campuses, school officials say

Manatee County Deputy Kenny Cristello walks the perimeter of Prine Elementary School Monday morning as more school resource officers are deployed at county schools.
Manatee County Deputy Kenny Cristello walks the perimeter of Prine Elementary School Monday morning as more school resource officers are deployed at county schools. ttompkins@bradenton.com

Before Gov. Rick Scott signed a proposal allowing for arming school personnel into law, Manatee County schools officials said they would likely leave the guns with law enforcement.

A gun and school safety bill was introduced after a teenaged gunman shot and killed 17 people in a Florida school would create a voluntary statewide program to arm school personnel, excluding those who exclusively teach. Scott signed the bill Friday afternoon.

However, School District of Manatee County officials say they want law enforcement to be the ones armed on school campuses, not other personnel or private security officers.

“I feel very strongly that law enforcement officers should be the only ones carrying guns in our schools. I believe our teachers and support staff should be fully focused on educating our students,” Superintendent Diana Greene said in a statement through a district spokesman to the Bradenton Herald.

The School Board of Manatee County has not publicly discussed the security options provided in the bill, board chairman Scott Hopes said. But, he noted, the board has taken a position and acted on the notion that the primary source of school security is with law enforcement.

“With new law enforcement (officers) on campuses, they, along with the police chief and sheriff and existing school resource officers, they will be able to make a safety and security assessment and provide us with recommendations,” Hopes said. “The board has not taken position regarding additional security options that have been afforded us in the bill yet.”

School Board member Charlie Kennedy said his sense of where the board stands on the issue is similar to Greene’s thoughts.

“When the board last had a chance to discuss it, we were all in agreement that we wanted local law enforcement to be the armed people on campus, not teachers, definitely not teachers,” said Kennedy, a former teacher in the district.

At least one Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputy or Bradenton, Palmetto or Holmes Beach police officer has been positioned in every School District of Manatee County school building as of Monday. Bradenton and Palmetto police departments are providing the officers as off-duty details for this school year, with plans to examine permanent funding options to hire more officers for the positions in the 2018-2019 school year.

The increased presence of officers on school grounds came after more than a dozen threats were made to Manatee County schools in the wake of a fatal mass shooting in Parkland on Feb. 14. Hopes said school security is a conversation that the board will continue to happen in executive session meetings as well as in public workshops.

District officials are in the process of having a panic button and buzzer system installed at county schools, as well as upgrades to security camera systems.

Hopes said he is “pretty confident” what has been put in place at elementary schools, which includes additional technology changes, they have satisfactory security. However, he added, there is more work to be done at middle and high school campuses, partially due to the size of the campuses.

If the state decides to provide money for additional security measures such as bulletproof windows or hardened doors, Kennedy said it would be great, but there are other ways schools could use those funds.

Schools in Sarasota County are also open to working with law enforcement to protect students and staff, a district spokeswoman said in an email to the Bradenton Herald Thursday.

“We continue to improve our school safety and security practices and are considering additional (school resource officers) and a number of other options to provide an armed presence at all of our schools, among other strategies,” said Tracey Long Beeker, director of communications and community relations for Sarasota County Schools.

School officials are working on an “enhanced school safety and security plan” as well as working with law enforcement to have an increased presence on and off campus, Beeker said.

As a response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the gun and school safety bill was introduced, which includes a program to arm school personnel, referred to as “school guardians.” It is up to local officials, however, to decide if the program will be implemented in schools. It was passed by Florida Legislature Wednesday and was received by Scott’s office Thursday. It got his signature Friday.

Scott met with Parkland victims’ families in Tallahassee on Friday before he signed the bill. Scott has previously said he does not want to arm teachers. An amendment to the bill removed most classroom teachers from the section that arms school personnel, leading state Sen. Bill Galvano , R-Bradenton, to tell the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau earlier this week he believed Scott would sign the bill because of the changes.

“This has never been about arming your child’s kindergarten teacher. Nor openly carrying guns on campuses, but we’ve learned a lot and we’ve continued to learn what happened from Marjory Douglas High School,” Hopes said.

Around the state

Ten of the state’s largest school districts told the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau they “have no intention of giving teachers or other staff” guns for classrooms.

School boards in Broward, Duval and Hillsborough counties adopted formal statements this week in opposition of the idea to arm school officials and, instead, called for funding to support officers in the schools.

However, officials in Brevard County — one of the 12 largest districts in Florida — were considering a proposal to arm staff in schools; but a district spokeswoman said earlier this week they have not agreed to it.

The Florida Education Association asked the governor to veto funding and language in the budget that would arm school personnel, saying, “it is unlikely that they will receive the intensive tactical training needed to confront an active shooter” and having “additional firearms on school grounds alters the culture of a school.”

Some smaller districts have seemed willing to consider using school guardians, such as Lake and Putnam counties.

“Districts are doing this already,” Galvano previously told the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau. “Say we did nothing, programs like this in different parts of the state are going to get legs and continue. … At least now we know there will be 132 hours of (firearm) training. There will have to be diversity training. We are creating standards.”

There are other options in the bill that would require schools to provide at least one “safe-school” officer at every school facility. Officials can choose between, or combine, a school resource officer, district school safety officers, or trained district employees carrying guns.

Funding the officers

A Survey by the Florida Department of Education shows state school districts would need about 1,550 more officers to cover every school, at an estimated cost of more than $115 million.

Last week, the Manatee County School District approved $597,800 to fund the 35 additional law enforcement officers posted at schools for the rest of the academic year. Superintendent Greene has said it is her hope the future cost of the school resource officers be split between the district and law enforcement. That’s currently the case with school resource officers who held the position prior to the expansion.

Kennedy said the school board has not yet had a chance to really discuss the funding, but his hope is that the current agreement with the preexisting resource officers continues.

Superintendent for the School District of Manatee County Diana Greene discusses security as a schools and urges parents to talk to their children about violence in the wake of a deadly Florida school shooting.

Sara Nealeigh: 941-745-7081, @saranealeigh