After several Sarasota County School Board meetings at which large groups of opponents to board policies have shown up, members voted 4-1 to beef up security.
With the vote, the board gave Superintendent Brennan Asplen the authority to add such measures as bag searches and metal detector tests for anyone entering the meeting chambers.
The policy does not specify when or where the new security measures will be in use, nor does it set an expiration date.
Board member Shirley Brown was in favor of the policy, stating she’s heard from many parents and students who felt threatened at board meetings and that board members also should not be subject to intimidation.
“We have policies against bullying and harassment,” Brown said. “You cannot harass or bully a student, a teacher or anyone in our school district, and I’m sorry, but I didn’t leave the protection of that right at the door when I got elected.”
The past two board meetings have been disrupted by parents opposed to the district’s face mask policy and those for and against Black Lives Matter content being taught in schools. Before meetings, groups of protesters gathered in the parking lot and chanted back and forth.
Board member Eric Robinson was the only dissenting vote. He said the policy infringes on people’s right to petition the government.
“People have the right to come in and give public input,” Robinson said. “They have the right to say things that make us feel uncomfortable.”
He said the board needs to have the priorities of the district at heart and that board members were more concerned with getting criticized than the safety and security of the students.
“We have more police officers here per person protecting us than we have at any school in the district,” Robinson said. “Our priority here is the safety and security of the children, so when we are concerned with the safety and security of the school board, rather than the safety and security of the children, I think our priorities are a little [out of] whack.”
Board member Jane Goodwin, however, said the measure would help ensure the safety of residents and members during the meeting.
Following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the board spent about $23 million to improve security at school sites. However, Goodwin said nothing was done to the board chambers and that adding a security officer to use a metal detector wand could help improve board chamber security.
“People need to come and feel free to say whatever they need to, but they do need to make sure that it is civil,” Goodwin said.
Board member Bridget Ziegler said that although she didn’t love the idea of using a wand detector, she doesn’t want people to feel unsafe while speaking in board chambers.
“The only concern I have, as things have elevated across the nation, is I want people to be able to come in here and speak their mind, and I want it to be in a safe manner,” Ziegler said.
In the end, she voted in favor of the policy, so Asplen could have the authority if it becomes necessary. However, she hopes any measures taken are temporary.
The vote allows Asplen to install metal detectors whenever he wants, though district spokesperson Kelsey Whealy said that at this time, the district will only use wands to search for potential weapons at school board meetings, not at schools. Additionally, bag checks will be conducted to search for any prohibited items.
It will cost the district $16.30 per hour to have a security officer, who will not be a member of the district’s police force, perform wand searches. The cost will be covered by the district’s Safety and Security budget.
Whealy said wanding and bag checks will start at the next school board meeting and will continue indefinitely. The practice will stop only when the board votes otherwise.