School district considers replacing police chief

Palm Beach County’s new schools superintendent is considering replacing School District Police Chief Lawrence Leon as the district expands its police force in the wake of the Parkland school shooting massacre.

Superintendent Donald Fennoy told school board members in March 30 memo that he planned to restructure the chief’s position and conduct a national search to select a chief to lead the department.

The school district is planning to add another 75 officers to its department, which currently has about 150 officers, to comply with a new state law requiring an armed officer on every public school campus by August.

RELATED: School police chief on shooters: ‘You need to go take out the threat’

With the department expected to grow quickly, Fennoy told board members that it was important “to ensure we have the most comprehensive leadership in place.”

The search for a chief is open to internal and external candidates, meaning that Leon, who has led the department since 2012, can apply and be considered.

In a message to his officers obtained by Palm Beach Post’s news partner WPTV-News Channel 5, Leon did not say whether he intended to apply for the position but said he was assured that he would not be fired if he is not selected.

“If I do not get selected I was then told that I will have a position in another capacity for as long as I want to stay with the District but not as the same capacity,” he wrote in the April 1 email.

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“I do not know where this is going,” he added. “All I know is that you need to continue to do the outstanding jobs that you are doing.”

Leon, a low-key leader who generally avoided public appearances, was thrust into the spotlight after the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Since then he has appeared frequently at public events and conducted regular media interviews to highlight the role of school police officers in maintaining security on public school campuses.

Board member Erica Whitfield said the intent is to expand and raise the importance of the position, and that she hoped that Leon would apply to be considered.

“This is part of keeping the kids safe,” she said. “I’m hoping Chief Leon will apply for the job. He’s not being kicked out by any means, but it’s going to be a bigger job.”

The number of school district-operated police departments is growing nationally, said Curtis Lavarello, a former Palm Beach County school police officer and executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council.

Palm Beach County has what he described as “probably the most comprehensive one in the state,” with only Miami-Dade’s department rivaling it in size and scope of duties.

And now, with a mandate to staff every campus and money to hire 75 more officers, Palm Beach County’s department is set to quickly grow by more than 50 percent.

“The department is going to grow very, very quickly. Probably faster than it ever has,” Lavarello said.

With that growth will come a need to train officers to work in school settings – a task that is different than the one officers train for in the police academy, he said.

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