Acting on the premise that “it’s the right thing to do,” Gulfport City Council, at its April 17 meeting, unanimously approved funding for the first police officer to ever be assigned to the local elementary school.
The new school resource officer (SRO) will begin by July 1 at Gulfport Montessori Elementary School, 2014 52nd St. S.
This action means the city will be in compliance with a new state statute that was inspired by the February 14, 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that left 14 students and three adults dead. Governor Rick Scott signed the measure into law on March 9.
“On Valentine’s Day, a day that is supposed to celebrate love, they were brutally murdered in cold blood,” said Scott in a press release issued March 9. “And, unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time our state has been rocked like this. In 2016, 49 innocent victims were murdered at Pulse Night Club and early last year another five people were killed by a gunman at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport.”
Scott thanked many people who worked together to achieve the creation of the bi-partisan legislation including the students of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“You made your voices heard,” he said. “You didn’t let up. And, you fought until there was change. You helped change our state. You made a difference.”
Essentially, the new state law mandates that a Safe School Officer (SSO) be assigned to every elementary, middle and high school in every district. This includes charter schools.
By state law, SSOs can be a sheriff’s deputy, a police department officer, a school district law enforcement officer or an armed school guardian. In Pinellas County, the school board voted on March 13, 2018 to not authorize the guardian program.
“Law enforcement officers should be the line of ‘first defense’ and the ones primarily responsible for the safety of students and school personnel,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri in his March 19 memo to the Board of County Commissioners.
“There are no sheriff or police department SROs currently assigned to any Pinellas County elementary schools,” said Gualtieri.
Throughout the county, middle schools and high schools have been allocated SROs for years. The school district maintains its own police force that serves some schools. Other sworn officers, provided by municipal police departments or the county sheriff’s office, are funded by contract by the district for the extent of each school year. For the remaining portion of each calendar year, either local police departments or the sheriff’s office provide the additional funding for the full-time law enforcement positions.
The recent fast-paced statute approval process has created cascading budget issues that for the immediate future have left the school district, the sheriff’s office and police departments in many local municipalities without the ability to fund the change.
There is a “dire need to resolve this funding issue as soon as possible,” said Gualtieri.
Gulfport city staff recommended that council allocate funding for one new SRO to add to the police department’s two full-time positions that have been assigned to Boca Ciega High School for at least the past 15 years, said City Manager Jim O’Reilly.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
The district takes care of the SRO at Disston Academy for Progress and Enterprise, a special-needs school that is also located within the city’s boundaries at 5125 11th Ave. S., said O’Reilly.
The national standard ratio for SROs to students is 1:1000, said Gualtieri. Scott and others at the state level have agreed this is the goal of the new statute. Currently, the Pinellas County School Board uses a ratio of 1:1500.
In consultation with Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego, “we further evaluate needs once the revised staffing is in place,” said Gualtieri.
O’Reilly said that he and Gulfport Chief of Police Robert Vincent agreed that the city had to do this.
“All these other political and financial issues will work themselves out,” said O’Reilly. “The city can afford to be in compliance with the statute and assure the fact there will be a Gulfport police officer in Gulfport Elementary and not one from another agency.”
The total of full-time sworn officers in the city will increase from 31 to 32 as a result of the new law. Within this total, the current SRO staffing of two will increase to three. When school is not in session, Gulfport’s SROs work as regular-duty police officers.
For the remaining part of the 2017-2018 budget year, the new officer position translates into a cost to the city of $33,800 for items such as salary, benefits, training, uniforms, weapons and other equipment such as body armor, radio and a computer, said O’Reilly. Annually, the recurring cost for the added position would be approximately $87,000.
Countywide, the average full cost of a sheriff’s deputy or police department SRO averages $100,000, said Gualtieri.
Will the Gulfport’s costs for the third SRO be reimbursed?
“I believe at some point there will be a mechanism put in place when the legislature goes back in session, after the November election, to allow some of this guardian type money to be utilized for resource officers in some way in the future,” said O’Reilly.
Will the state legislature allocate funding for the new SRO retroactively?
“I can’t speak to that,” said O’Reilly. “I think that at some point you’ll see that the other legislative bodies beyond Gulfport will take the appropriate action.”