A grand jury convened to investigate school security lambasted Palm Beach County’s public schools for investing too few resources in keeping students safe, admonishing the school district to either “adequately fund” its police department or let the sheriff’s office take control.
In a critical report released Wednesday by State Attorney Dave Aronberg, the grand jury accused the school district of hiring too few officers, paying them too little and misleading the public about how well guarded the schools are.
“If the Palm Beach County School Board and the [school district] do not want to adequately fund, hire, pay and equip the [school district police], they are in effect wasting our taxpayer money and could be putting our children’s lives in danger,” the grand jury concluded.
If board members won’t do anything to address the problem, “PBSO may be the only viable common-sense option,” the report stated.
The report also called for hiring more school counselors, requiring all school employees to have “stop the bleed” training, issuing all students ID badges and installing impact-resistant glass in classroom doors.
Aronberg convened the grand jury to investigate school safety after the Parkland school shooting, a decision that he said provided “an unbiased review of our current levels of school safety.”
At a news conference Wednesday, he said that he believes that the county’s public schools are safe as they are but that “there’s room for improvement.”
“Am I concerned? Sure. Am I worried? No,” he said.
After reviewing financial records and interviewing police and school district officials, the grand jury concluded that the school district’s police department is “understaffed, underfunded, underpaid and under-equipped.”
The school board is already working to expand its department, but the report is likely to provide more fodder for the renewed debate about whether the sheriff’s office should take over the school district’s police department, a proposal that district officials reject.
It also comes as the school district is proposing to ask voters to raise property taxes by $150 million a year, in part to invest more in its police and other security measures. State law now requires an armed safety officer at every public school.
While the grand jury was convened to study school safety countywide, the report shows it did not evaluate the county’s 48 charter schools and more than 100 private schools, choosing to focus exclusively on the school district’s roughly 180 campuses.
In a rebuttal published online, the school district acknowledged many of the report’s negative findings but criticized as “irresponsible” its suggestion to fix them by using financial reserves or cutting other school programs.
“It is clear from our initial review that the cost of implementation (of the recommendations) could easily exceed $50 million,” the district wrote.
“It would be irresponsible,” it added, “to suggest these significant new investments can be funded by simply redirecting existing scarce resources.”
The district pointed out that state lawmakers have lowered the school board’s property tax rate over the past three years, limiting its ability to raise new money as property values rise. That has made it difficult to keep up with rising costs, educators say.
“Florida school districts have unfortunately grown accustomed to receiving unfunded or under-funded mandates from the Governor and State Legislature,” the district wrote. “There is no benefit to our community to perpetuate this practice at the local level.”
But jurors concluded that school police’s staffing levels and low pay left schools unprepared for the threat of a school shooter.
The department has 162 officers today, fewer than it did a decade ago. Of those, 111 officers patrol schools.
The ratio of officers to students is more than triple that of residents in Jupiter and more than four times the ratio in Delray Beach.
The department’s officers have “by far” the lowest pay scale among the county’s law enforcement agencies, the report said.
Officers have to buy their own guns. Some do not have patrol cars, and those that do rely on cars that are more than a decade old.
In testimony to grand jurors, one district officer called the situation “embarrassing.”
The district routinely says it assigns at least one officer to every middle and high school and one officer for every four elementary schools.
But the report concluded that the elementary patrols are “much sparser” than the district claims.
Witnesses told jurors that the staffing level was often just one officer for eight schools, and that “one witness was horrified to discover one officer for 13 schools in a certain part of the county a short time ago.”
In August, all public schools will be required to have an armed safety officer on campus throughout the school day. The department is looking to hire 75 officers, while also arranging agreements with other agencies to help cover school patrols in the meantime.
But the grand jury warned that hiring new officers would be difficult unless salaries are raised and the department is better equipped.
“If [the school board] wants to maintain the existence of an adequately functioning school police force they must pay their police a more competitive salary,” it wrote.
Jupiter Police Chief Frank Kitzerow, recently appointed as the district police department’s next leader, acknowledged some of the problems the report highlighted but said he was “moving ahead.”
“Is there room for improvement?” he said. “Yes, and we’re going to take it to the next level.”
Staff writers Sonja Isger and Joe Capozzi contributed to this story.