- Andrew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
More police officers. More counselors. More fences, gates and training drills.
State leaders on Friday announced sweeping plans to overhaul how public schools protect students – plans that, if they become law, would mean big changes for how Palm Beach County’s 230 public and charter school campuses operate.
The proposal received initial backing from educators, including Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa and the head of the state’s teachers union.
If Gov. Rick Scott gets his way, every public school will have to have at least one armed school district police officer on campus all day, and the county’s high schools will have two or more. Scott’s plan calls for one armed officer for every 1,000 students.
That could mean nearly doubling the number of officers patrolling the county’s traditional campuses. Currently, most middle and high schools have only one assigned officer, while elementary schools share an officer with three or more other campuses.
It would have an even starker effect on charter schools, which are publicly financed but operated by private organizations. Today, most charter schools don’t have armed security and rely on municipal police for their law enforcement needs.
In a letter to Scott Friday, Avossa wrote that the police-staffing proposal was “responsive to the demands of both our school board and community.”
“At least 75 new school resource officers will be required to meet this mandate in our district-operated schools,” Avossa wrote.
Scott also called for every public school to have a dedicated mental health counselor on staff, in addition to any guidance counselors they already employ. Currently, most schools don’t have dedicated counselors.
Avossa applauded that proposal as well, saying that “system-wide school-based mental health intervention and case management is long overdue.”
Lawmakers say the state would create statewide safety requirements for all public schools and would free up new money to help schools better secure their buildings and perimeters.
All told, Scott and leaders of the state House and Senate said they plan to provide nearly $500 million to cover school safety measures and some related proposals, which will be partially paid for by foregoing tax cuts this year.
“Let me be clear – there is nothing more important than the safety of our children,” Scott said in a news conference Friday. “Our kids deserve nothing less. Fortunately, our economy is booming, and we have the resources to protect our schools and our students.”
School districts would be required to submit safety plans and, once approved, would then would be eligible for extra money for security measures such as metal detectors and bullet-proof glass.
Palm Beach County’s public schools are planning to spend more than $30 million in sales tax earnings during the next decade on security upgrades at more than 180 campuses, including cameras, alarms and card-access systems, but new state guidelines could require even more work.
One provision in Scott’s plan would require school districts to use construction money provided from the state for critical security fixes before dedicating it to any other uses.
The proposals would also require schools to create threat-assessment teams that meet monthly to review threats to the campus, train all teachers in crisis intervention and hold regular drills to ready students and teachers for the possibility of a shooter on campus.
Scott said the safety requirements would extend to charter schools, which often lease their campuses from commercial property owners and are exempted from many of the facility requirements that apply to traditional public schools.
State leaders disagree for now on the issue of whether to arm teachers. Scott said that he opposed doing so, but Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said his chamber’s plan would let school districts choose to arm certain teachers who pass mental health screenings and complete firearms training courses.
“My focus is on providing more law enforcement officers, not arming the teachers,” Scott said.
Also applauding components of the state plan was Palm Beach County School Board member Barbara McQuinn, who said more police officers on campuses would be a boon to the schools but difficult for county school boards to finance within their current budgets.
“We definitely need more money for school police, but that’s not to take money away from the academic side or the mental health side,” she said. “We’re already so low there. Don’t rob from Peter to pay Paul, please.”