Editorial: School, sheriff security-staffing standoff is unacceptable

The adults in the situation aren’t looking after the kids.

Although 11 city police departments have tentatively agreed to patrol half the county’s elementary schools, at overtime pay rates, until the Palm Beach County School District can add staff to its own police department, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has made it abundantly clear that he will spare no more deputies on overtime to protect against a potential mass shooter in the 45 to 50 schools in areas outside cities.

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The sheriff can’t afford the manpower, he says, because his deputies are stretched thin with other duties — such as guarding President Donald Trump during his many wintertime trips to Mar-a-Lago.

Bradshaw seems to have his priorities backward. His first duty is to protect the citizens of this county, who elected him and who pay him to do his job. If he doesn’t agree that elementary school children’s lives are more important than elaborate motorcycle escorts for Trump’s golf outings, then something is wrong.

The sheriff has made another proposal, but it’s one that the school district rejects: If the district will pay $7 million, he’ll hire 50 new deputies to cover the schools in unincorporated areas for a year.

The district dislikes the idea of paying for a full year of PBSO coverage while trying to hire more staff for its own police force. Its police department needs time to bring aboard the 75 additional officers needed to comply with a new state law, and is looking for temporary help from outside agencies until new hires can come onboard.

That law, passed in quick response to the Feb. 14 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, requires at least one armed guard at each Florida public school building by August — a difficult, maybe unrealistic, goal, given the time it takes to hire and train personnel, and the lasting costs to school districts.

For years, the county’s district police force has placed at least one officer in each high school and middle school, and assigned individual officers to rotate among three or four elementary schools. Since March, other police agencies have augmented security at the 180 campuses through “good faith” agreements with the district.

Bradshaw has pitched in. PBSO developed an app that students can use to report threats and suspicious activity directly to law enforcement. He commissioned a report on the county’s school-security situation from the prestigious Police Executive Research Forum, a leading think tank.

Released a few days ago, the PERF report called PBSO “extremely well prepared to handle these kinds of incidents,” and made a major suggestion: That the Sheriff’s Office and the School District Police join forces.

Bradshaw promptly said no, brushing off the very experts he had asked for advice.

RELATED: A cop in every public school by August? Easier said than done

Not to be outdone, schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy said no as well, saying it would cost too much. For good measure, the district released a rival report that it had commissioned. This one, from the Council of Great City Schools, concluded that school policing should stay with the school district.

The merger idea holds some attractions.

If a shooting were to take place, the smaller, less well-equipped School Police Department “would rely heavily on PBSO and other municipal law enforcement agencies,” the police-research report says. And that “presents obstacles to an effective response.”

“The status quo,” PERF says, “is not acceptable.”

PERF sees two choices: Either the School District Police Department and PBSO must coordinate closely and continually, and not slip into their separate spheres as they were before the Parkland shootings — or the two agencies should merge, with PBSO in charge of “all school security staffing.”

As we see from this immediate squabble about staffing the schools, PERF was correct to doubt the ability of these two entities to cooperate. This mule-like behavior must change, and fast. The first day of the 2018-2019 school is just two months away.

It’s time now for both the district and the PBSO to drop the posturing and to remember what’s most at stake: The kids.

If, God forbid, there is a Sandy Hook at a Palm Beach County school, no one will be asking Bradshaw or Fennoy how well they protected their budgets. All we’ll want to know is how well they protected our children. Neither department, neither leader will be immune from that question.

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