Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Ahead of final decision to arm staff, Brevard School Board reviewing other options

Caroline Glenn FLORIDA TODAY May 8, 2018

Facing pushback from parents and employees, the Brevard County School Board appears to be rethinking a controversial program to arm school staff.

Following months of community debate, the school board is set to make a final decision on Brevard Sheriff Wayne Ivey's Sheriff-trained Onsite Marshal Program, or S.T.O.M.P., Tuesday night, which would train school employees who volunteer for the program and arm them with guns to respond to an active-shooter situation.

The school board at one point seemed poised to adopt the program, with three of the five board members telling FLORIDA TODAY they believe S.T.O.M.P. is imperative to school security and will keep children safe. However, community feedback at recent town halls and results of a school district survey show the county is deeply divided over whether to implement the program, and the school board is now exploring other options.

All of the options aim to address gaps at schools that don't have a school resource officer. A new law passed in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, in which 17 people were killed, requires either an SRO, an armed school employee or a private security guard in place on every campus by the start of the upcoming school year. The Brevard school district has already said it cannot afford an SRO at every school and local police agencies don't have the manpower to fill the positions.

Sheriff Ivey has recommended the school board hold off on the marshal program and focus on getting SROs in every school.

Mark Mullins, chief operating officer for the district, said after talks with local police departments the district will likely have about 28 SRO spots to fill across the district's 88 schools. At a recent workshop, district staff laid out the following options to fill the 28 remaining SRO slots:

— Contract with a professional security service that would provide armed personnel to the district. District staff said this option would mean less liability for the district, and there are four providers in the state the district could choose from. Estimated cost: Between $1 million and $1.2 million

— Hire full-time campus monitors, a position that already exists but going forward would be an armed employee. Some of Brevard's high schools already employee campus monitors, described as the "eyes and ears" of the campus. Current monitors would not be required to carry guns. However, the school district discussed rewriting the job description so that future hires could carry firearms. Monitors would receive $30,748 in salary and benefits. Estimated cost: $860,000

— Hire a a full-time School Safety Director and full-time School Safety and Security Specialists, who would undergo the same training as proposed under S.T.O.M.P. These specialists would be required to have a concealed carry permit and go through Ivey's S.T.O.M.P. training to become special deputies so they can carry guns on campus. Specialists would receive $40,431 in salary and benefits. Estimated cost: $1.2 million

Read full results of district survey: HERE

School Board Vice Chair Tina Descovich said the board will vote Tuesday on the third option, as well as two separate agenda items for S.T.O.M.P. and other layers of Ivey's security plan. The other layers include developing active-shooter drills and training for students and staff, continuing a program at the district's alternative learning centers, promoting an anonymous tip line, continuing to upgrade school facilities and working to get an SRO in every school.

"I think it's fantastic," Descovich said of the new option to hire School Safety and Security Specialists. Descovich has been one of the more vocal supporters of S.T.O.M.P. "Many people that had concerns about the S.T.O.M.P. program that I've talked to have had an open mind to School Safety and Security Specialists."

The option to hire School Safety and Security Specialists was mirrored after a program the Polk County School Board approved last month called the School Safety Guardian Program. Coincidentally, Ivey's S.T.O.M.P. proposal was also inspired by a program that originated in Polk County — Sheriff Grady Judd's Sentinel Program.

Unlike personnel armed and trained under Ivey's S.T.O.M.P. proposal, School Safety and Security Specialists would not be anonymous and acting as a security specialist would be their sole responsibility. The specialists would undergo the 176 hours of training with the Brevard Sheriff's Office outlined in Ivey's S.T.O.M.P. proposal, as well as background checks, drug tests, psychological screenings and interviews.

Responding to critics of the S.T.O.M.P. proposal who say school employees should be able to focus on their jobs, Superintendent Desmond Blackburn said these specialists would operate "with one sole purpose and that is security and security only."

On Facebook, Brevard Sheriff Wayne Ivey made his case for a controversial marshal program to train and arm school staff to respond to an active shooter situation.

District staff is expected to present more information about the School Safety and Security Specialists at Tuesday night's school board meeting.

To pay for additional security, the school board is also exploring its options and is seriously considering raising property taxes. The board has also looked at taking on debt, attempting to pass another half-cent sales tax and cutting programs.

District chief financial officer Pennie Zuercher said raising property taxes by 1 mill over the next four years would bring in $37.2 million per year, costing the average homeowner about $14.58 each month. However, the tax increase would have to be approved by Brevard voters during the November general election or a special election.

District spokesman Matt Reed said the deadline to submit the referendum for the November ballot is Aug. 20, and given that it must first be approved by the Brevard County Commission, the school board would need to move fast. A special election, on the other hand, would cost $750,000.

Zuercher said, if approved, the district plans to use $3 million of the tax revenue each year for SROs and $10 million the first year to pay for building upgrades to enhance security. The district would spend an additional $2 million each of the following years for further facility security enhancements.

Superintendent Desmond Blackburn said he "wholeheartedly" recommends the school board put a 1 mill referendum on the ballot for the November general election. He said a portion of the money it brings in should also be used for employee raises.

"One of the best thing we can do to keep our schools safe is arm our employees with effective compensation," Blackburn said, seemingly taking a page out of a campaign that went viral among the nation's teachers about what they'd rather be "armed with" in lieu of guns.

Zuercher said the money could help pay for up to 3 percent raises for employees for the next two years, although raises would need to be approved by the union during bargaining season.

Caroline Glenn is the Education Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact her at caglenn@floridatoday.com or 321-576-5933, or follow her on Twitter @bycarolineglenn and like "Education at Florida Today" on Facebook.