After hiring a teacher with a missed red flag on his file, some Sarasota County School Board members are hesitant to hire half a police force before August.
As the Sarasota County School Board moves closer to adding 30 staff members for an internal police force by August, the district’s hiring practices are being called into question after it hired a teacher who was under investigation in Manatee County.
Quentin Peterson applied in the district in September and was hired as a math teacher at Booker High School in February after five months as a substitute. On April 24, he was arrested on child pornography charges from the Palmetto Police Department in connection with a reported inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old student.
Essentially, the district hired Peterson after finding no criminal history and receiving positive recommendations from administrators in Manatee County. However, they did not take full advantage of state databases to find other reports of professional wrongdoing.
His arrest prompted an audit of the Sarasota district’s hiring processes, which were outlined May 1 by Superintendent Todd Bowden and the Human Resources Department.
“We hired a teacher who had no business being in a classroom or among our young people,” Bowden said. “We failed. We own that. We are going to make sure this never happens again.”
At the same time as the district makes changes to how it hires teachers, some board members are concerned about hiring 30 security employees needed in such a short time.
Although implementing the internal police force will take two years, the district hopes to have hired and trained six command staff members and 24 officers to staff elementary schools by the first day of school — less than four months away.
“[With] the unfortunate circumstances that happened with Human Resources and the Booker High School teacher, I am worried as we move down this path that we need to be very cognizant of what the path looks like in terms of having an internal police force,” board Chair Bridget Ziegler said. “I just feel as though there are a lot of outstanding questions, and this is the first step. I don’t feel comfortable going down that road.”
Ziegler was quick to express concern about the rapid timeline last month, and she’s not alone. School safety and security expert Michael Dorn, a former law enforcement officer with a police force at a Georgia school district, said the timeline might be hard to meet.
“One of the challenges that we’re seeing is the dramatic shortage of applicants, qualified applicants for police stations, period,” Dorn said, citing vacant law enforcement positions across the state of Florida.
But Dorn said for the district to hire 30, it’s more doable than having to hire 100 or more, which some larger districts must do to launch an internal police force.
Still, “to get fully functional it can take a while,” he said, and part of that is the lengthy screening, hiring and training process.
“It’s a lot more complex than most people think — 90% of people walking the street will not pass the screening for a police officer,” Dorn said. At the department where he worked, “We only hired one out of 100 applicants who were already police officers. It was very competitive.”
For now, the Sarasota County School Board just approved job descriptions for the chief of police and police sergeant positions. The positions will be advertised to build an applicant pool.
At the meeting May 15, board members will continue to discuss if this is the direction they want to go, and will give the superintendent the green light to start hiring — or not.