Having first entered local public schools in August, Sarasota County’s internal school police force will continue to expand its countywide presence in the 2019-2020 school year.
Hugs and high-fives are a daily part of the job for Officer Daniel Gale.
He hands out stickers, too. And sometimes, he ends up with more ketchup on his uniform by the end of lunch than would a typical police officer.
It’s just that the kids at Wilkinson Elementary School clamor for the privilege of eating lunch in the company of their favorite police officer.
In fact, he is in such high demand that “Lunch with Officer Dan” has become a reward system to encourage good behavior.
“I created so much chaos when I first got here, just walking around the lunchroom,” he said. “These kids want to be up there to sit with me, so they try to behave.”
This academic year is Gale’s first as a school resource officer in the first year of the Sarasota County Schools Police Department.
Though there were several options possible when the district began considering ways to adhere to new state laws meant to bulk up school security after the Feb. 14, 2018, attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Sarasota’s school board ended up launching its own police force.
In neighboring Manatee County, armed guardians assumed the security role in elementary schools after 144 hours of training. County- or city-based police officers work at middle and high schools.
After launching over the summer, SCSPD has since hired 23 sworn officers, three sergeants, two regional response officers and a chief.
Venice Elementary and Emma E. Booker Elementary will have local law enforcement deputies at least until the end of this year.
The total cost for the two-year implementation of a new police force is projected at $3.1 million. Within that figure is budgeted $500,000 for non-salary allocations, such as equipment.
Police Chief Tim Enos, a former Sarasota Sheriff’s Office captain who took over the role in October from Paul Grohowski, who was reassigned, told county officials recently that the department is aiming to hire at least an additional 25 officers for the 2019-2020 academic year.
“When people ask me how many kids I have, I say, ‘roughly 2,100.’” — Officer Devin Epps
Thus, moving forward, the new school force aims to act as mentors, protectors and resources to their schools.
And to many of the officers, like Gale, the key to being successful is building and maintaining relationships with the students.
“It’s phenomenal when you start to see the connection that the students start to have,” Sarasota County Schools spokeswoman Tracey Beeker said. “It’s really lovely, quite frankly, and that’s exactly what we want.”
The majority of the sworn officers are stationed at public elementary schools in the first year.
Sarasota County middle and high schools, on the other hand, employ officers sworn to either the Sheriff’s Office or the respective police forces of each city. Private schools and charter schools are responsible for their own security.
But, once the 2019-2020 academic year begins, SCSPD officers will also begin to assume responsibility in the schools where sheriff’s deputies are stationed.
The police officers from the various cities within the county may either opt to remain in their schools or relinquish their positions to SCSPD.
“We’re continuing to grow as we work with the partners, the cities and the county’s Sheriff’s Office to assume responsibility over certain schools,” SCSPD Sgt. Tim Perna said. “The ones in question are the ones like in Venice or North Port. They’re still trying to decide which [schools] they want to keep their officers in, if any.”
Upon seeking employment with Sarasota County, all new or out-of-state officers have to be certified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Additionally, each applicant is subject to an interview, a background check, a polygraph test, psychological evaluations, medical screenings and even a credit check.
Perna describes the hiring process as “excruciating.” But the real prerequisite for the job, many officers agreed, is passion.
“I’m a firm believer that kids can really pick up on it if you don’t have a passion for it,” said Officer Devin Epps, based at Sarasota High School. “If you don’t care, the kids are going to pick up on that. That’s the motto I use.”
Every morning, Epps and Officer Thomas Gallucci stand early at the entrances of Sarasota High School to greet
Once they’ve made sure everybody has entered the campus safely, they check in with the school’s assistant principals and guidance counselors.
“We’re there for them if they have any issues, any problems, and we want to make sure they know they can approach us,” Gallucci said.
“Even if they’re just having problems with their school work or at home. That’s part of building relationships.”
When they’re not patrolling the halls, Gallucci and Epps also act as mentors to at-risk students.
Simply being visible and available, they said, is what allows them to make a difference.
“Interacting with the kids is my favorite part of being an SRO,” Gallucci said. “This is my family.”
“When people ask me how many kids I have,” Epps added with a laugh, “I say, ‘roughly 2,100.’”
Gale sees that, and more.
He said it is a pleasure every day to be a positive force in the lives of the district’s youngest students. He says the experience also helps him be a better grandfather for his 7-year-old granddaughter.
“I think it helps build for the future by having a positive role model here. By being someone to talk to and interact with so that they know they can trust you,” he said.
“If I’m going to put my life on the line, what better thing to do that for than the kids? They are the future. They can’t defend themselves. So what better thing to put my life on the line for?”