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School District's Armed Security Debate Smells Like Political Hay


The Manatee County School District is hoping to respond to an expressed desire from the public to prioritize the security of students by using armed guards in elementary schools, most of which have lost their school resource officers to the financial fiasco suffered by the district at the hands of the previous administration. The district is pushing what sounds like a common sense plan to be able to afford armed security in every elementary school, in addition to deputies in middle and high schools. To almost no one's surprise, they are meeting resistance.

The proposed plan would continue to maintain Manatee County Sheriff’s Deputies (known as school resource officers) in high schools and middle schools (as well as adding one for MTI), while using armed private security guards at the elementary level. The proposal is rooted in the dual role deputies play in high schools, and to a lesser degree middle schools, where there is not only a security function but a law enforcement one as well. As sad is it may seem, there are enough instances where a student or teacher's safety at that level is jeopardized by other students to warrant a dedicated local LEO – sexual assaults, physical assaults, drug and weapon possession/sales, criminal harassment, etc. – not many, but enough.

While there are indeed instances in which law enforcement must become involved at elementary schools, they tend to be much more rare and less complicated. Having officers respond to the scene in those unique cases seems adequate. The idea in the current proposal is that since security from outside forces is the prevailing concern at that level, it is not a prudent use of resources to pay the considerably higher cost to have a member of local law enforcement in the school when the same protection can be achieved by contracting with a private security firm that offers retired military, federal agents and former law enforcement as armed guards.

According to contract information provided by the district for both services, the cost of each MCSO resource officer, in both payments to MCSO and capital expenses from impact fees for vehicles and communications equipment, is $144,413 per year, or $1,010,891 for the seven that are under contract. The proposed contract with Sarasota Security would cost $1,005,753 for all 33 security officers needed (including one supervisor). That's slightly less than just those seven resource officers and $3.76 million less than 33 resource officers at the current cost to the district.

So an argument against the proposal would essentially be that putting a resource officer in the elementary school instead of a security officer has a value $114,000 per school that could otherwise be spent elsewhere on things like additional teachers, aides, textbooks, classroom technology or program funding. To give you a frame of reference, the total cost of a new, first-year teacher in salary, payroll taxes and other benefits is $52,146. In other words, they can hire two new teachers and an armed security guard for less than the average cost of a resource officer.

The opposition to the proposal has been led by first-term school board member Dave Miner, who has routinely characterized those armed security officers as “rent-a-cops,” with a clearly pejorative ring to his words. Miner has offered political platitudes on the safety of our children not coming down to dollars and cents but as every board member knows, everything in their job comes down to either policy or dollars and cents, because being responsible for a budget – one that as we have painfully learned is not infinite – means making decisions on how to best spend those limited resources.

It should be noted that the budget survey from which the public input was culled, was taken in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy – a time when security was on everyone's minds, especially parents of elementary-aged children. I'd also submit that given the vast complexity of most school district issues, coupled with the understandable priorities of most parents in general, it's not surprising that keeping my child safe would be the answer most commonly given to a question as to where they'd like to see the district focus available resources.

Nonetheless, I applaud the district for seeking taxpayer input and putting together a response to that concern that seems like both an adequate and cost-appropriate solution. I have a child in a Manatee County school and like every other parent, the Sandy Hook incident left a noxious churn in the pit of my gut, because it not only forced me to imagine what if, but also to confront the most difficult reality I've found throughout my 10 years as a parent – the realization that no matter how hard we try, we can never, ever ensure that harm will not fall on the most precious things we will ever know: our children.

However, I've always prided myself on being thoughtfully pragmatic, rather than emotionally driven when it comes to the things that are most important to me. As awful as a school shooting surely is, the fact remains that the most mortal danger my child faces each day is our 35-minute drive to his school. Someone texting while driving is far more likely to take my beloved son from me than a mentally ill sociopath – and there's more that can be done to prevent it. It doesn't mean we shouldn't take appropriate steps toward all risks, but with limited resources, there needs to be an intelligent cost/benefit analysis to everything we do.

Is a well-trained armed guard – the sort who protects banks, armored trucks and highly-secure private institutions everyday – an adequate response to that very unlikely threat, especially if it means that a few more reading coaches can be hired in that elementary school or a fine arts program can be saved? I believe it is. Truth be told, I was comfortable when there was no armed guard or deputy at my son's elementary school. Personally, I'd rather see the resources spent in the classroom and the law enforcement component focused on keeping roadways safe where there is statistically a much greater chance of a small child being run over, killed in a collision or even abducted on the way to school, than gunned down in a mass shooting.

When it comes to preventing tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook, there is indeed much we can do. Proposed legislation like the bill that would have allowed doctors to ask patients they suspect of being mentally ill or otherwise dangerous whether or not they have access to a firearm would seem like a good start. Educating gun owners like the mother of the Sandy Hook gunman on how to better recognize when people who have access to their weapon stockpile shouldn't, would seem like another.

As for Mr. Miner, it is clear that, to put it mildly, he is not fond of the new administration, and he has made no secret of the fact that he wouldn't be sorry to see the district head in a different direction. Ironically, that has won him a base of support very different from the one that carried him to victory two years ago, but that is why they say that politics make for strange bedfellows. During the 15 years or so prior to being elected to the board in 2012, Mr. Miner built an impressive reputation as a citizen activist lobbying for the best interest of Manatee students. Indeed, he was one of the chief citizen activists who worked to expose the previous administration's financial shenanigans and bring an end to their dismal reign.

That being said, it has become something of a constant expectation that if the superintendent or his team come up with a plan for just about anything, Mr. Miner's response will range from having serious concerns, to being adamantly opposed or downright obstructive. An activist can afford to die on every hill, an effective leader cannot. If every issue gets litigated ad nauseum until each hair on its head has been split four ways, little progress can be made. I think common sense will ultimately prevail in this issue; I just don't expect it to have an easy row to hoe.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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