A few months in to the first fully-staffed department, Sarasota County school police officers hope to make bonds, be mentors to students.
For a police officer, a typical day means patrolling an area, responding to emergencies and filing reports. Now mix in high-fives, hugs and the occasional lockdown drill, and one can begin to understand the day of a school resource officer.
The start of the 2019-20 school year marked the first year the Sarasota County School District staffed all public schools with an officer from the district’s police department. The district established its own police force in the 2018-19 school year after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. However, not all schools switched to the system until the start of the 2019-20 year.
With the switch, which negates the need for contracts with local police departments, the district is hoping to save about $450,000 in the first year of the program and about $1.5 million in subsequent years.
The more than 30 new officers in the department underwent 160 hours of training specific to school policing. Additionally, all officers will have 32 hours of training spread throughout the year, above the Florida state mandate of 40 hours of training every four years, SCSPD Sgt. Joe Hayes said.
“Most of these officers are retired from other departments so they have years of experience,” Hayes said. “We don’t have to be here, we have pensions. We all have a desire to be here, to be in the schools and working with the kids, and that’s what sets us apart.”
Within the first few months of the school year, the department has reported around 870 incidents, which range from vaping on school property to fender benders in a school parking lot.
Although safety is the No. 1 priority for the officers, the system allows for some unexpected benefits.
One officer is placed at each public district elementary and middle school, and two officers are at each high school. Officers say each grade range offers its own challenges, but a common thread connects them all: good communication.
Introduction to School Resource Officers
As Officer Joe Reed, or "Officer Joe," makes his way through the cafeteria at Venice Elementary, he is met by excited faces and hundreds of fist bumps. The children scramble to show off their new pair of sneakers or what snacks they brought for lunch.
"Officer Joe, look at my project!" "Officer Joe, look: I have two Fruit Roll-ups today!"
He meets each of them with a patient smile and often cracks jokes or gives out “super secret handshakes.”
“My whole job is relationship building,” Reed said. “If you don’t have relationships with the students, you’re not an SRO. As an SRO, you have the opportunity to mold and teach that you can’t as a regular road patrol officer.”
Reed typically starts his day at parent drop off, bantering with the parents and welcoming the students. He then patrols the halls, making stops in classrooms as needed. Lunchroom check-ins are a daily activity and occasionally, he teaches safety classes such as "Stranger Danger."
“It’s great to have these interactions with the students because you can see if they’re excited to be there or if they’re kind of down or if they need some special attention that day,” Reed said.
Often, an elementary SRO is the first interaction students have with an officer, and Reed said he wants to ensure that it’s a positive experience.
Bridging the gap
As children file into the lunchroom at McIntosh Middle School, they grab Officer Anthony Limite by the hand and lead him to their tables. He jokes with them, listens to their problems, which often involve a tale of who's dating whom, and even grabs ketchup packets for students who forgot theirs.
He sits down with students who have been given lunch detention and helps them make a plan for improvement.
“Once I have a bond with a student, I’ll go and sit with them and say, ‘I’m disappointed that you’re in lunch detention because that’s not you,’” Limite said. “We make plans to get better, and eventually, students will say, ‘I can’t do that because I don’t want to disappoint Mr. Limite,’ and they stop misbehaving.”
Limite’s job takes a more administrative role in breaking up fights or resolving other situations. However, he said he still puts an emphasis on mentoring.
At McIntosh, students who are misbehaving get a scorecard to take around to each class. At the end of the class, they are awarded a score for good behavior, with three being the highest. Often, Limite will make a deal with students that if they make it through the whole day with all threes, he will give them a candy bar.
“It’s great because they get a little something out of it, but then I can say: ‘Well, I know you can behave the whole day because you just did it. Now I want you to do it again,’” Limite said. “I am running out of candy bars, though.”
Becoming a mentor
Some students give a tentative smile or a head nod in her direction while others avoid eye contact altogether. It comes with the territory, she says with a smile.
DeFrancisco arrives to the school around 7 a.m. each day. She checks student IDs as she greets them and then she monitors the school and makes sure gates are locked and that there’s no unusual activity. When she’s not out patrolling, she monitors the school via video screens in her office or tries to make relationships with students.
“I think the perception is that if a cop walks in, someone is in trouble, and that’s not the case at all,” DeFrancisco said. “I want to be a mentor and more of a friend, someone these students can trust.”
Often, she sits in on meetings with counselors and checks in on students who are having a bad day. Like Limite, she breaks up fights, responds to potential threats or disciplines students for having contraband, such as vaping pens on campus.
If a more serious offense arises, SROs are empowered to arrest, but they try to initiate restorative justice programs, such as teen court, when possible.
“Working in the schools as opposed to being on the road is different, but it’s amazing,” DeFrancisco said. “It’s like having 2,000 kids of your own.”