By STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON
Hillsborough public schools and charter schools are finally up to full force with the graduation of the final group of school security officers last week. The newly-minted officers have all gone through more than 100 hours of training by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. This training includes active shooter response, defensive tactics, and firearms training, in addition to training the district provides.
Sixty-four officers graduated at the ceremony. That brings the total to 208 Hillsborough school security officers in county schools. Hillsborough School District has 285 personnel, including supervisors, patrol, etc. in its School Security division. The school district received some additional funding from the state, but that did not fully cover all of the officers and their training, according to an HCSO spokesperson.
The school security officers are hired by the Hillsborough School District and are authorized to legally carry a weapon, concealed or otherwise, inside the school. Their job is to maintain law and order and to supervise security and access to the school. A new Florida law created a so-called Guardian program, a $400 million school-safety law, permitting schools to use specially-trained, armed guardians in school to respond to active shooters.
Regarding the financial aspects, part of the money to pay for the school district’s SSOs comes from the state and part comes out of the school district’s operating budget. “We spend about $18 million a year on SSOs, school security officers, their equipment and training,” explained a school district media spokesperson. “The district administrators, students and their families welcome the addition of an officer on every campus. The SSOs, or guardians, are part of the school and work to get to know all the students and staff.”
Law enforcement leaders Sheriff Chad Chronister, Chief Brian Dugan and Chief Ed Duncan have ensured that one of their officers or deputies was on every campus, beginning on the first day of school, until the district was able to train and to hire the 208 additional officers and supervisors needed to staff every elementary school and charter school.
All this security follows in the wake of the Parkland school shooting over a year ago. State law also mandates that each school hold an active-shooter drill once each semester. Each school is required to assess security features and to be prepared for a threat or a potential threat. All schools are also required, post-Parkland, to provide to each student access to a mental health professional.
Damien Kelly, the director of the state’s Office of Safe Schools was in attendance for last week’s graduation of the remaining contingent of SSOs for Hillsborough public and charter schools. Just last week, Hillsborough Schools Chief of Security, John Newman, met with Director Kelly and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission in South Florida to discuss how Hillsborough Schools’ team, through the direction of Superintendent Jeff Eakins and school board members, has been able to quickly become fully compliant with the state mandate.
The state legislation put a strain on manpower and finances for Hillsborough schools; however, the school district’s top priority is to make schools safe learning environments for all students.
Many of the SSO’s (school security officers) are current or former law enforcement officers or have a military background. In addition to the SSOs, the Hillsborough School District maintains a number of other security measures, including access control on all campuses. All visitors to schools, including parents, volunteers and community partners must enter through the main office, show a state-issued ID and sign-in.
Hillsborough Schools also conduct lockdown drills, which are required by state law, on its campuses once a month. The drill practices how teachers, staff and students would respond to an active, immediate threat on campus.