The Feb. 14 shooting at a South Florida high school not only brought focus to students safety, but also to those in uniform who guard them.
That focus has existed in Citrus County for more than 30 years.
Former Citrus deputy and now-retired teacher James Martone was one of the first school resource officers in the county in the mid-1980s. The concept of SROs originated in Flint, Michigan in the 1960s, Martone said -- a takeoff on the idea of beat cops, who walked an area of their city and knew everyone in it.
“Basically, by having the same person there, the concept was that they’d be able to keep crime down,” Martone said.
In the early 80s, Leon County’s then-sheriff Eddie Boon started an SRO program in his north Florida county.
“Sheriff Eddy Boon was big friends with our then-sheriff, Charlie Dean,” Martone said. “Sheriff Dean liked the idea, and wanted to take it a step farther — he wanted people with college degrees, college educated.”
Cheri Cernich, now the school district’s director of risk management, and Martone were two of the first to fit the bill; Doug Dodd, then a deputy and now the chairman of the Citrus County School Board, followed soon after.
The guiding principle back then wasn’t security, Martone said, but rather communication and relationship-building.
“The original concept was what we used to call the triad concept — one-third police officer, one-third mentor, and one-third teacher,” he said. “So law enforcement and security played a very small role in what the initial idea was. It was to establish a rapport, get to know all the people in that community — all the kids, all the families.”
In response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Legislature passed a law requiring districts to have an SRO on every campus to enhance safety.
The Citrus County School District and the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office contract each year for SRO services. Currently, each middle and high school has one full-time SRO, and five of the district’s 11 elementary schools share SROs with other elementary schools.
Sheriff Mike Prendergast wants at least 12 more, which would bring the total complement of SROs in Citrus up to 26.
One of the sheriff’s main concerns: Sometimes, SROs have to be away from their schools.
"I have said all along that I am fully supportive of putting a sworn law enforcement officer on the campus of every school. We’ve got some campuses that need to have more than one,” Prendergast said in an interview. “This year we’ve already — unless the numbers changed today — had 61 Baker Acts on our campuses in Citrus County. For kids.”
Baker Act is an involuntary commitment for a mental evaluation if a person is believed to be in danger of harming themselves or others. Because Citrus County has no Baker Act intake facility, students must be transported to Ocala or Brooksville.
“We’ve also had 32 arrests,” Prendergast continued. “If I have to have an SRO...on a campus when the school is open, if we have to do a Baker Act — that’s four hours, minimum. If I have to do an arrest...about the same amount. What happens when one of these guys gets sick or they have a family emergency?”
The school board, after an hour of debate on Tuesday evening, voted unanimously to approve paying 50 percent of the cost of five additional SROs to ensure that each elementary school has its own for the remaining three months of the school year. That would mean $82,625 from the school district, and the same from the sheriff’s office.
After the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High, the sheriff’s office stationed additional deputies at schools across the county.
“The sheriff has made it clear to me that he’s having to pull officers from other areas to cover the schools,” chairman Doug Dodd said during Tuesday’s meeting.
The board did not, however, approve sharing the cost of an additional sergeant the sheriff’s office requested, or address the request for additional SROs to cover schools when their deputies have to be off campus, voicing its intention to address those concerns when renegotiating the district’s contract with the sheriff’s office in coming weeks before the district’s fiscal year ends June 30.
That’s insufficient, Prendergast said Friday.
“What was reported to the school board the other day for the requirement is one thing -- and it’s not totally accurate and fully descriptive,” he of the board’s Tuesday meeting. “I’m not trying to be over-the-top assertive in the requirements -- but the requirement is the requirement. There's no option for leaving the campus open while the deputy goes to court.”
The new law means that each campus must have a deputy at all times, Prendergast said -- not just a deputy assigned to it who may sometimes be off campus, leaving it more vulnerable.
“Going forward, it is my intent that we seek every dollar that they get for safe schools, number one, to pay for the true cost of our school resource officer program,” Prendergast continued. “And to be as absolutely transparent as possible with all of these costs, so that we can take care of ensuring that we have the right equipment and a replacement cycle for that equipment in a proper time frame.”
County Commissioner Brian Coleman, a retired Citrus County deputy, said Friday he’d heard the sheriff might request $1.8 million in his next budget, which would reflect a significant increase driven by the cost of new SROs.
“At $1.8 million, I don’t know if we’d need to raise taxes,” Coleman said. “We’ll definitely have to look at that, but I’m all for supporting the schools, their security, and the sheriff’s office. …We all need to sit down and talk and figure out what’s best for the community.”
The school board and the sheriff agree that the program allowing for armed school personnel on campuses created by the new legislation isn’t something they’re interested in pursuing, at least not with the minimum requirements the law includes. The program allows local sheriff’s offices to create a program to train and certify certain school staff members to carry firearms on campuses.
Dodd voiced opposition to armed school personnel during a March school board workshop.
“I know there are a lot of concerns about arming teachers,” he said. “I am not in favor of arming teachers, but I think we have to be open to looking at the potential for added safety measures for our students.”
The significantly lower level of required training concerns the sheriff. The law itself requires 132 hours of training, including with firearms and a in active shooter scenarios. Deputies go through over 800 hours of training before they are put on the street.
“Here's the thing — we’re asking a person who’s not a law enforcement officer to essentially perform a law enforcement function,” Prendergast said. “To decide in the heat of the moment, with 148 hours of training...when everything is collapsing down and they get tunnel vision — we’re asking them to deploy deadly force and not kill innocent people.
"And the scenario that scares me to death is one of these people going into a classroom with 20 first-graders...and the person who’s got the weapon is standing behind 20 first-graders, and they have so much tunnel vision that they draw their weapon and start shooting and kill innocent children.”