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Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid is moving ahead with his plan to transition city police officers out of school resource officer positions and move in Polk County Sheriff’s deputies.
Currently, there are eight different law enforcement jurisdictions providing officers to schools. With the change, there would only be one – the sheriff’s office – simplifying the command structure.
Heid told School Board members at a recent meeting that it will be a two-year process, starting in August, and that after working out the details “we found that all of the municipalities had a willingness to transition.”
Heid said he and his staff have met with city managers to address their concerns about financial or staffing hardships.
“Each one of them concluded and shared that, ‘No, it would not affect us at all’ and it would ultimately benefit them as an organization, as far as filling their own vacancies,” Heid said.
Heid said a few cities even said if the transition is going to happen, they’d like to do it in the first year instead of waiting.
Some law enforcement officials have privately shared with LkldNow and some School Board members that they have a deep concern about students’ safety should a major incident occur. Sheriff’s radios only connect with dispatch and other deputies – not all law enforcement in the city in which they’re working.
However, the sheriff’s department’s communication center – which oversees 9-1-1 calls and communications with deputies and police officers — has the ability to connect with all police departments.
School Board member Kay Fields said an official with one municipality, whom she did not name, “didn’t seem like he was a happy camper. But that’s just my opinion on the matter.”
Lakeland commissioners expressed disappointment and concern when the proposal arose in March, noting that school resource officers have built relationships and trust in the same neighborhoods that LPD polices. But Heid said he and his staff have worked to allay any doubts.
“We’ve addressed this fully and given them every opportunity to address any lingering concerns that they have with us directly,” Heid told School Board members. “And in fact, I have a feeling I know who we’re referencing, and yet, that organization is making the transition during the very first year and their chief was very welcoming and appreciative of the opportunity.”
School Board member Lisa Miller asked if there was a way to sustain the relationships some city resource officers have made with students.
“Are we offering a volunteer program? Is each city going to make up their own?” Miller asked. “How are we going to maintain their access to focus on things that they can utilize to help support the students in their cities when they’re not on campus?”
Polk County Sheriff Captain Jill Seymour, director of the Safe Schools program, said there are multiple programs run by each city in which departing SROs can still participate.
“We are inviting them to still teach the SAFE or DARE program, whichever one they participate in at the middle schools,” Seymour said. “So we’re encouraging those officers to still stay in the classrooms with the kids and we invited them in our meetings to come onto campus and be … in the school anytime they wanted. We invited them to stay on campus and interact with the kids.”
Seymour said there will still be additional-duty details, including providing security at sporting events, dances and other high-attendance events.
Lakeland Police Chief Sam Taylor told city commissioners on Monday that LPD is reassigning the officers and has realigned some its staff to form a Community Services Section, partly in response to the change.
“Now with the School Resource Officer unit being collapsed … we’re actually going to move that over [to the new section],” Taylor said.
LPD’s new Community Services Section, under Lt. Joe Parker, includes:
- Neighborhood liaison officers
- Homeless liaison officers
- Community Redevelopment Agency officers
- Crime prevention civilian unit
- The Police Athletic League (PAL)
- The smaller school resource unit, which will still serve charter and private schools.
Taylor said the department hopes to get schools more involved in PAL, which is entering its 30th year. The department also has a year-round Police Explorers program for youth aged 14-21 and two summer camps staffed by school resource officers and neighborhood liaison officers.
Taylor told commissioners that with the reorganization and 21 new hires, the department’s ranks are complete. “All open positions currently have names assigned,” he said.
At the school board meeting, Miller asked if there were a written policy of how deputies and officers from municipal police offices will communicate.
“There’s not anything in writing and policy right now,” Seymour said. “But there is our talking about it, like elementary schools, because there’s going to be deputies, there’s still going to be the same line of communication at the middle and high schools, the elementary schools we’re still kind of counting on the law enforcement agency to contact our office if they have any issues. And as a failsafe, we ask that the administration at the school contact us as well, so we know that we’re getting it from two different avenues.
Polk County Public Schools Spokesman Jason Geary said for the 2023-2024 school year, PCPS will no longer be using Lakeland Police, Lake Alfred Police, Bartow Police or Auburndale Police for school resource officer services. He said 17 municipal officers are being replaced by deputies with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
In the 2024-2025 school year, officers from Lake Wales Police, Haines City Police and Winter Haven Police will be phased out.
Regarding radio communications, “it’s my understanding that this will be a seamless transition, and the effectiveness of radio communication will not be an issue.”
At the May 9 School Board meeting, Chairwoman Sara Beth Wyatt and members Lisa Miller, Kay Fields, Lori Cunningham and Justin Sharpless voted in favor of renewing the $6.89 million to pay law enforcement officers to guard schools. Rick Nolte voted against the measures. Vice-Chairman William Allen was not in attendance.
The SRO funding was lumped in with multiple other funding items. After complaints about unrelated items from members of Winter Haven 9-12 – a self-described group of “patriots with conservative values who condemn corruption and overspending in all areas of state and federal government” – Nolte cast a no vote. He did not respond to a text inquiring about his no vote.
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