Public school safety has been a national issue for decades. The shocking massacres at Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 shook the nation and made security a hot-button issue.
In a sudden move that took the public by surprise, the Manatee County school district fast-tracked a contract with a private security firm over the past six weeks. Questions about vetting the company still hang in the air, but a divided school board voted 3-2 Tuesday to approve a three-year, $3 million contract with Sarasota Security Patrol.
Despite the hasty approval, the school board acted with good intentions on safeguarding young students.
School security has been a burning issue for years, and the district did employ a handful of sheriff's SROs for elementary schools until budget cuts a few years ago. While we've opined in the past in favor of law enforcement, now at least there will be guards.
Indeed, public schools must be protected -- as Manatee County residents have indicated in surveys. While the district employs professional law enforcements officers to serve middle and high schools, only one of the 33 elementary schools enjoys similar protection.
One of the justifications for the swift action is the vast majority of respondents to the recent district survey put a high priority on school security. But that survey did not state that armed private security guards could be an option, a lesser one than highly trained professional officers, known as school resource officers.
The contract only requires private guards have a minimum of one year of police, security or equivalent training. How secure will schools be with minimally trained armed guards?
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube asked a very pertinent question in Herald education reporter Meghin Delaney's Sept. 5 article on the issue:
"If the school board votes to have armed security, how many of those security officers are going to have the type of training that police officers and military have?"
And would another district survey show the public wants professional law enforcement over private security?
That's but one question about this rushed process.
Superintendent Rick Mills dropped his plan on the public on July 31. A request for proposals went out on Aug. 4, yet the district did not post this on its website until Aug. 26. Bids were opened Aug. 18, thus denying public input into contract specifics. That lack of transparency is troubling.
The board was poised to approve a contract on Aug. 26, the very day the RFP got posted. The board prudently tabled a vote, but then forged ahead with Tuesday's approval.
Julie Aranibar, Karen Carpenter and Barbara Harvey voted in favor, with Bob Gause and Dave "Watchdog" Miner dissenting.
The district should not be engaging in such rapid timelines. The public deserves greater opportunity to enter the discussion.
Moving forward, Sarasota Security Patrol must prove worthy of the public's trust by meeting expectations and keeping our elementary schools safe.