MANATEE -- Kneeling down under the light rain before school on Wednesday, Frank Uzzolino helped an Oneco Elementary School student fix a loose shoelace. Straightening up, Uzzolino headed toward the bus-entrance area of the school, greeting children with calls of "Good morning!" or "Buenos dias!"
The scene marked the first day for security guards contracted from Sarasota Security Patrol in 31 of 33 Manatee County School District elementary schools. The guards were deployed without guns, while the district waits for the state attorney general to rule on the legality of the program.
At Oneco, Uzzolino was outfitted in a long-sleeve white shirt under a crisp, short-sleeve white shirt with black pants and shiny black shoes. A patch on the arm of his shirt identified Uzzolino as an employee of Sarasota Security Patrol. Around his belt, Uzzolino was outfitted with a key ring, a radio and a set of handcuffs.
School resource officers, commonly called SROs, are serving Anna Maria Elementary and Palmetto Elementary schools this year. The Palmetto officer is being provided by the Palmetto Police Department for the 2014-15 year free of charge, and the district is contributing about $25,000 this year to the Holmes Beach Police Department for the officer at Anna Maria.
Other than those two elementary schools, no other district elementary school has a full-time SRO. All of the district's middle and high schools have at least one full-time officer provided through an agreement with the local law enforcement agencies.
Bradenton police officers will check in at least once daily with the seven elementary schools that fall within city limits, Chief Michael Radzilowski said. The department had a staff meeting on Tuesday to discuss ways they could do more to help.
"An SRO is so much more than a security guard," Radzilowski said Wednesday.
The police department provides SROs to Manatee High School and Sugg Middle School. The officers will visit Wakeland, Manatee, Rogers Garden, Ballard, Miller, Moody and Sea Breeze elementary schools.
Radzilowski said his interpretation of the statute was that the private guards would not be able to carry guns, but said he could be wrong.
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube has said he'd like to see the district increase the number of SROs in schools. If the district wants to bring more SROs from the sheriff's office next year, the conversations need to start in the middle of the school year, Steube said.
Officials from the sheriff's department, Bradenton Police Department and Palmetto Police Department met with representatives from Sarasota Security Patrol and the school district earlier this week.
'More at ease'
At Oneco, parent Janine Smith said she was glad to have the extra protection in the school. Her 6-year-old daughter Sophia is in first grade there.
"It definitely makes me feel a little more at ease," she said.
Parents Jennifer and Tim Hartzell agreed with Smith, and added they appreciated the extra set of eyes and ears on campus to deter strangers. They added they didn't necessarily think the officer needed a gun.
"I don't think guns are really required," Jennifer Hartzell said.
On Tuesday morning, the Hartzells chatted briefly with Uzzolino.
Principal Tina Stancil said she is happy to have Uzzolino on campus. Stancil said she hadn't heard of any parent concerns and planned to introduce Uzzolino to the parent community in the school's October newsletter. Stancil said the school has a very open campus, and having Uzzolino on campus will be a great help.
"He greeted people warmly, and the children seem very comfortable," Stancil said Wednesday morning. She and Uzzolino planned to meet for lunch to talk about the morning and monitor the lunchroom.
Uzzolino declined to comment Wednesday.
During Wednesday's dismissal at Prine Elementary School, a number of parents said they had been unaware of the program, but said it was a good idea to have more security in the school. Dawn Eads, who has one child at Prine, likes the idea, but said she thought it was strange the officers were on campus without guns.
"They really can't do much without a weapon," she said.
Ruth Mann, who has two great grandchildren in the school, said she didn't know about the program, but thought extra security on campus was a good thing.
"We hadn't heard, but I think it's a good thing," Mann said.
Mann questioned whether having the guards on campus would cost more money to the taxpayers.
The district signed a $1 million per year, three-year contract with Sarasota Security Patrol. The contract allows for a 30-day written notice of cancellation.
Mills said on Tuesday that the district staff attorney and outside legal counsel did not see anything in state statute preventing armed security guards in the schools, but the district has asked the attorney general to step in and interpret the statute before the guards carry guns.
Two state statutes provide conflicting views as to whether armed security guards are legal. One state statute, 1006.12, states that 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 guards shall be law enforcement guards, certified under a number of provisions and employed by either a law enforcement agency or the school district. The guards 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." That statute is typically used to provide armed guards at sporting events.
The idea to bring in armed security guards first arose during a budget meeting on 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 board approved the contract with a split vote.
Board members Julie Aranibar, Karen Carpenter and Barbara Harvey approved of the plan with members Bob Gause and Dave "Watchdog" Miner voting no.
On Wednesday, Miner sent an email to district officials asking that the contract be placed under old business for reconsideration at the Sept. 23 board meeting because of the legal issues.
"As each day passes, it becomes more apparent that the Manatee County School Board should reconsider its approval of a contract with Sarasota Security Patrol," Miner wrote in his email.
As of Wednesday night, the item was not listed on the agenda.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.