These days, Florida public school officials tend to define school safety in one of two ways: Before Parkland and After Parkland.
Palm Beach County Schools are no exception. Before the deadly Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people — 14 of them students — an adequately staffed district-run force focused primarily on not criminalizing students and on maintaining an environment conducive to education. In the four months since, however, political and parental pressure has pushed that focus more toward locking down safe campuses.
This new normal has revived an old question. Palm Beach County’s school district is one of about a half-dozen in the state that runs its own police department. Should that continue, now that the stakes for student safety are so serious? Or should school security be outsourced to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office?
This debate goes back at least a decade, when then-schools chief Art Johnson asked Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to research how a merger of departments might work. After a few false starts on both sides, they appeared to give up in 2013.
The district still says no merger or takeover is necessary. We agree — at least not now, as some knee-jerk response to a tragedy.
The PBSO, the county’s largest law enforcement agency, is used to dealing with the worst our society has to offer. But not all smart-mouthed middle-schoolers are hardened criminals. Nor should they be treated that way, lest our schools resemble penitentiaries.
School district officials say their 162 officers are better attuned to the world of students and teachers than street cops would be. And, in a meeting with the Post Editorial Board on Monday, they insisted that their police force is up to the task of keeping students safe, even considering After-Parkland realities.
That doesn’t mean the school district’s safety operation is perfect. Superintendent Donald Fennoy, not yet four months into the job, has hired a new police chief and elevated the role to cabinet-level — first steps in building up the force to not only deal with a possible mass shooting here, but more importantly to focus on preventing such an incident.
“There’s a difference between child issues and adult issues,” Fennoy said. “So part of our officers’ role is to be a solution to help kids make better choices.”
His argument comes in the wake of last week’s release of a blistering 72-page Grand Jury Report commissioned by State Attorney Dave Aronberg that cited numerous deficiencies in the school district’s safety operation — including the ratio of students to officers, the role of guidance counselors and hardening of schools.
Aronberg insists that the panel “did not take sides on which law enforcement agency — the school district police force or the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office — is best equipped to keep our 193,000 students and 27,000 school employees safe,” but the report’s language is heavily weighted toward the Sheriff’s Office.
Though on point with regard to improving staffing and updating equipment, the Grand Jury Report also recommends a long wish-list of proposals that are unrealistically expensive. The school district has rightly disputed a recommendation that it use state-mandated reserves to help pay for more officers.
The School Board is likely to approve next month a proposal to ask voters in November to quadruple the once-every-four-years arts tax from 25 cents a mill to $1 a mill of taxable property value. The bigger levy would give the district an extra $150 million a year. Much of that would pay the costs of a new state law requiring an armed officer on every campus and to ramp up mental health services.
There are barely two months before the new school year begins — yet Fennoy promises every one of the 187 school buildings will be staffed as the new law requires. District officials have collected more than 400 resumes for 75 positions it needs to fill. While new officers are hired and trained, the district is working out contracts with local police forces. Even PBSO has offered up 10 deputies.
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With so little time, it’s simply impractical to turn over the security of our schools to another agency for the new school year. School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw has offered a reasonable challenge: Give the district a year to show that its police force can handle the job, he told the Editorial Board. “Then see if we’ve made the right decisions.”
The district is willing to shoulder this burden. The public will have to do its share by agreeing to provide the funds that are needed — and then hold school officials accountable for how well they keep the campuses safe.
‘There’s a difference between child issues and adult issues. So part of our officers’ role is to be a solution to help kids make better choices.’ — Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy