At a particularly well-attended school board meeting on Tuesday, board members listened to four proposals for increased school security presented by Hillsborough County School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. The proposals included hiring outside security expert Michael Dorn for $8,500, securing access points around schools, hiring more student resource officers, and training students and faculty in crisis management.
Members of the community weighed in on the proposals, voicing concerns about young children being around armed guards, and about the hiring of private corporations to provide security. Local elementary school principals in attendance voiced their support for the measure.
When it came time for the board to debate the measures, the high price tags associated with some of the proposals bothered the members. (The four measures were originally lumped into one large bill, which the board then split into individual actions.)
In the end, only the $8,500 to hire an outside security expert was approved, mainly due to it's relatively small price tag and the fact that the board saw it as absolutely necessary.
On the other proposals:
• Securing access points around schools: 90 percent of Hillsborough County Schools are properly secured in terms of access to the campus according to the board, yet this proposal still called for $1.2 million to improve the remaining 10 percent. The enactment of this point was the most narrowly voted down of any of the proposals, going 4-3 against.
• Crisis management classes for teachers and students: With a price tag of $40,000, the idea was handily defeated.
• Hiring more student resource officers: Increasing the amount of armed security guards in elementary schools was the major focal point of the debate over this proposal. Primarily slated to be resource officers from the county sheriff's department and Tampa Police Department, the possibility of contracting private security guards was also viewed as an option. Board members debated the cost, effectiveness, and social implications of the program. While primarily high schools and middle schools already have officers present, increased security at elementary schools was the main issue at hand. Ultimately, pricing was a huge factor in the voting down of this proposal, which would have cost $700,000 dollars this school year alone and a combined cost of more than $4 million for the 2013/2014 year.
Most board members were hesitant to fund these projects, especially by dipping into the district's contingency budget. The idea of an increased police presence was also called into question as a cure-all that would prevent the kind of shootings seen in Sandy Hook and Columbine.
District 3 school board member Cindy Stuart noted the difficulties of funding such a large influx of resource officers.
"This is an awful position to put the board in, where we have not had the opportunity to discuss this and either way that we vote we are going to get beat up for this ... the money is a huge issue." She said. "Federal and state funds, while they may come for this, are going to run out."
Other members sought different ways to improve the security of Tampa area students. Board member Susan Valdes called for the group to "think outside the box," saying the current proposal itself was simply political posturing to bring attention to security at Hillsborough County schools.
"I think this is really truly overboard," Valdes said. "This a conversation we need to have about how we'll secure our schools and campuses.”
Council chairman April Griffin noted that these kinds of tragedies in schools have been prevented in the Bay area in the past, most notably by the actions of students in alerting the proper authorities — as seen in the foiling of the bomb threat to Freedom High School in 2011. She also brought up recent spending cuts in things like guidance counselors in the county.
"(There's) a mental health component to this. Yet every time there's a budget cut that's one of the first things to go," Griffin noted. "We need to be real with this conversation, we need to be real ... there's so much more in this conversation that we need to look at."
The main supporter of adding more armed personnel to schools, increased funding and all, was District 5 member Doretha Edgecomb, who thinks that whatever is possible must be done to protect students.
"We can never put a price tag on the lives of our students and our employees and our commitment to keeping them safe," she said.
Dr. Stacy White of District 4 said that the current level of violence is a byproduct of our society and that community involvement is one of the most pressing issues in preventing tragedies. She said every aspect of school safety needs to be looked at, but that it shouldn't be rushed despite being such an important issue.
"We have to be very, very careful to not allow an individual who did a terrible thing to that school in Connecticut to cause us to have tunnel vision with respect to student safety," she said.
Freshly hired security expert Michael Dorn will now work with the school board and its in-house security advisers to further look into the issue, with future meeting already being planned.