Sheriff Tom Knight wants the school district to hire retired law enforcement officers to protect schools against active assailants. But the School Board has a lot of questions about how to make that actually happen.
In the three weeks since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in South Florida, the goal of securing school campuses from future attacks has become clear, but the methods remain the subject of questions with few answers.
Days after the deaths of 17 in Parkland, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight joined the security discussion, rolling out a proposal to hire and train retired law-enforcement officers to provide security in the event of a similar attack.
“I live in the moment, and living in the moment is, ‘I know what I got, I know what could happen, what can I do mitigate it?’” Knight said of the plan he has been thinking about for years.
Under Knight’s plan, the Sarasota County School Board would manage hiring, scheduling, compensation, policies, procedures and termination of the “marshals.” The Sheriff’s Office would run training and orientation, which includes 84 hours of instruction.
The marshals would have no law enforcement authority other than acting against an attacker.
“They’re purely there to walk around and be the eyes and ears on campus,” Knight said. “It’s purely from a law enforcement perspective to protect the campus.”
The sheriff’s plan asks the school board to fund, hire and oversee the marshal program — and the four-page proposal leaves questions unanswered.
“It does come up with a certain number of questions,” board member Eric Robinson said.
He wanted to know how old the retired officers would be, whether training was a one-time thing or ongoing and whether those people would be used to provide education on the campus.
Board member Caroline Zucker would also like to see the marshals meet “qualifications other than being able to shoot,” like being able to relate to a child. And she wondered if the school district would be responsible for paying for the marshals’ training, or if that’s something the sheriff would cover.
“I’m not sure exactly what the parameters should be yet,” she said. “If some things were ironed out, it would be a good partnership if we could reach an understanding as to the cost.”
Cost and liability are board member Shirley Brown’s two big concerns.
Sarasota County Schools Safety, Security and Emergency Management Director Michael Andreas had questions, too, about training issues, what responsibilities to assign to marshals, how many to employ and how to handle after-school activities.
“The short answer is I need to know more,” Andreas said.
Most board members agreed they’d be more comfortable having more school resource officers in schools, but Knight cited the cost and time associated with getting more ready. He said it takes 18 months and $132,000 to hire and train new officers.
“Where do we get those resources from?” he asked.
Knight guesses the district would pay the marshals about $25 an hour to be on duty only when students are on campus. If an average school day is seven hours, and students are in class 180 days a year, and the district hires marshals to staff all of the 40 elementary, middle and high schools — that’s more than $1.2 million to pay marshals for a full school year, not including the cost of hiring and training.
“There’s just a lot of questions that need to be asked, but he is the chief law enforcement officer,” Robinson said. “There’s nobody that knows more about safety and security in the school district than Sheriff Knight.”
Although so much is undecided, Sarasota County Schools wouldn’t be the first district to implement such a program. Executive Director of Safe Haven International and school safety expert Michael Dorn could think of five districts that did something similar without having to wait for the months and years of training it would take to get new officers ready.
“If we’re going to put officers in schools, they should have a broader purpose,” Dorn said, both as a way to be cost-effective and to help mitigate other threats to campuses that are more likely than an active shooter.
“I know it appears to people that our schools are just a lot less safe than they used to be,” Dorn said. “Active-shooter events, though bad for society, are not trending upward.”
Dorn cited a study that found between 1998-2013, active shooters accounted for 62 out of 2,000 deaths on school campuses.
Ultimately for Sarasota County, more questions will need to be answered and details solidified before Knight’s plan could become a reality. Andreas doesn’t expect that to happen any sooner than the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.
“I think they need to do something sooner than later,” Knight said.
The school board is considering different security measures, and will vote on March 22.