A plan under consideration by Polk County Public Schools to replace all Lakeland Police school resource officers with sheriff’s deputies has alarmed some city officials, who said they are receiving calls from concerned parents.
The idea was proposed by PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid during a two-hour, closed-door session with the School Board and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd on Tuesday as part of annual update on school safety. The change would affect every municipality in the district that has its own officers in schools.
The Sheriff’s Office oversees the school district’s Safe Schools Office. The meeting was held behind closed doors because it discussed security issues and safety plans that the district does not want disclosed to the general public, including the number of school resource officers in each facility, maps of schools and active shooter plans. School Board Attorney Wes Bridges was present at the meeting.
“I approached the sheriff’s office last year inquiring as to why we have multiple agencies supporting school safety,” Heid told LkldNow. “Over the last 18 months we have worked to review and enhance our school safety measures. As a result, we implemented random searches and increased accountability for those who make threats at schools.
“At this time, I believe the next step is to consolidate our SRO (school resource officer) program into one solidified command structure,” he continued. “We will be meeting with each chief to discuss my recommendation, and address any questions or concerns that they may have.”
One jurisdiction instead of eight
Heid said he wanted to clarify that it is in the district’s interest to work with each municipality to address any concerns regarding his recommendation, work on a timeline for any resulting transition, and ensure that they are able to “maintain a presence and relationship with our schools and students, through many of the worthwhile programs such as DARE, pedestrian safety, Explorer programs, etc. I would also love to have a conversation about revisiting the Police Athletic League across the district.”
The district has more than 150 schools and about 116,000 students in regular and charter schools. According to Judd, Heid dislikes dealing with eight different agencies, doing things eight different ways.
The Lakeland Police Department provided the first school resource officers in the county about a dozen years ago. Winter Haven, Auburndale, Haines City, Lake Wales, Lake Alfred, Bartow added SROs at their schools in subsequent years.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office School Resource Unit is comprised of two sergeants and 19 school resource deputies. The Polk County School Board provides partial funding for these positions, with deputies assigned to eight high schools, eight middle schools and two alternative schools.
“In addition to their regular duties, school resource deputies provide services to 24 elementary schools,” bringing the number of campuses served by the School Resource Unit to 42, according to the PCPS website.
In 2018, following the murder of 14 students and three educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the Florida Legislature enacted a new law that required, at a minimum, an armed guardian at each public school, along with a hardening of campuses to have only one entrance onto school grounds, and the ability to take away firearms from people who have been Baker acted or been issued a risk protection order.
School safety guardians are employees of Polk County Public Schools and receive extensive training from the Sheriff’s Office. School safety guardians are based at elementary schools.
City leaders fear loss of relationships and trust
A school district official contacted City Manager Shawn Sherrouse and Police Chief Sam Taylor on Thursday to let them know about the discussion.
“Someone yesterday contacted us from the School Board and is asking to meet with Chief Taylor and myself and with them, and so we’ll have that discussion,” City Manager Sherrouse told city commissioners at Friday morning’s agenda study, acknowledging that no decision has officially been made.
“We provide SROs, not only to the public school system, but to the private schools as well,” Sherrouse said. “What the impacts would be to each of those categories is still uncertain.”
Taylor was caught off guard about the discussion, but told LkldNow that he is always willing to work with the Sheriff’s Office.
“It saddens me to see that this is the way it’s going,” Taylor said. “Our top concern has always been the safety of the kids in the schools, whatever it takes to make that happen.”
Taylor said the school district is within its rights to have whomever they choose serve as school resource officers. If it happens, Taylor said, “We’ll make it as seamless as possible.”
City Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said during the agenda study that she wants to maintain an LPD presence in the schools.
“I strongly encourage that discussion to maintain our LPD presence,” Roberts McCarley said. “I love Polk County Sheriff’s Office and I met their team that does the Guardian program and they’re great, but I just feel like, historically, our community has seen this as a value and a protective service for our students that live in and around Lakeland. I just would like to strongly support our SRO program.”
Mayor Bill Mutz pointed out that many LPD officers currently on the job have worked hard to build trust and develop positive relationships with students, which often helps to head off problems like fighting or truancy – major challenges in the school district.
“The personal relationships take years to establish and they exist,” Mutz said.
City Commissioner Stephanie Madden asked if LPD and the Sheriff’s Office use the same law enforcement techniques with the students.
“There are other factors, again, with our pre-arrest diversion tactics and what we decide, how we address the students and handle that,” Madden said. “I don’t know – is that the same as how Polk County does that?”
One difference between the agencies is that all LPD officers including school resource officers wear body cameras; sheriff’s deputies do not.
Balancing efficiency with different policing approaches
School Board member Lisa Miller emphasized that no decision has been made, although she acknowledged that all seven School Board members were briefed on the situation.
“Chief Taylor and all of our city chiefs know that any changes to our SRO program would not happen without our safe schools staff having meetings with them and presenting to our board,” Miller told LkldNow. “We don’t make those decisions without all stakeholders at the table.”
The discussion comes as part of Heid’s efforts to reorganize the school district’s various departments to make them more efficient and to procure additional funding where allowable. In the last two months, he announced an overhaul of the special education department and, this week, the reorganization of the early learning department. Both departments are also changing they way they use federal funding to help educate more students.
Judd is the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in Polk County and has jurisdiction in each municipality. He was in Tuesday’s meeting with the School Board. Reached on a rare day off Friday, Judd said it wasn’t his idea, but he supports it.
“He asked me, ‘Why do I have eight different policing entities providing safety and security for one school district?’ and I explained the history of that to him,” Judd said. “And he said, ‘You know, I would prefer to have one jurisdiction in charge of school resource.'”
“The police chiefs are my friends,” Judd continued. “We work with police departments every day. But each city police department has different policies, different levels of customer service, different systems and processes. We’ve worked for nine years to try to unify the services, but they all have different cultures, different responsibilities. So if that’s what you want, it certainly would be easier on us because we’re the umbrella authority.”
Judd said his deputies and investigators find themselves taking out risk protection orders against some students they feel are an imminent threat to other students when police departments don’t feel they are necessary. And sometimes, police officers find themselves doing home checks on students in unincorporated areas, where they have no authority.
“I’m not going to get into the politics of it,” Judd said, adding that he told the superintendent: “It would be my preference, if that’s your decision and the School Board will support that.”
Recent gun incidents raise the stakes
The discussion came a day after two administrators were shot in Colorado and a former student killed three students and three adults at a private Christian school in Nashville. It also comes amid a spate of juvenile-related gun incidents in Polk County:
- Haines City Police on Tuesday arrested a 17-year-old male at Haines City High School with a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol in his car.
- On March 20, a 17-year-old male student at Davenport High School was arrested by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office after being found with a handgun and ammunition in his pants.
- On March 6, a 13-year-old boy shot an 11-year-old girl in the backseat of a car.
- In January, a Lakeland Highlands Middle School student was arrested with a gun.
- Also in January, a girl was arrested at Lakeland High School after officials were tipped off that she had a gun.
- In December, a Lake Gibson Middle School student died after shooting himself with a handgun he found in a friend’s parent’s car.
- In December, a McLaughlin Middle School student was arrested after a gun was found hidden in nearby bushes.
- In October, a Tenoroc High School student was found with a gun.
Judd said he would have to hire about 30 additional deputies to serve as SROs. When asked if he would hire police officers who are currently serving in that capacity, he said yes, but with conditions.
“I’m not going to poach from the police departments. Okay, I’m just like, I don’t do that,” Judd said. “Certainly, if there are those that work for the police department, and they say, ‘Look, I would like to continue to be a school resource officer. Can I apply to work with you and be a school resource officer for continuity?’ I would allow that. They still have to go through our, what we call, our abbreviated step training, you know, but there’s no guarantee that they would get to stay there forever and ever to the end of their career.”
For law enforcement personnel, it’s not just a matter of whether they wear black LPD uniforms or green PCSO ones. The agencies use two different retirement systems. The city’s is self-funded, while the sheriff’s office falls under the Florida Retirement System.
Judd said if the School Board approves of the measure, there would be a gradual transition that would take about a year to implement.
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