As Florida lawmakers prepare for the upcoming legislative session, the local School Safety Work Group is urging them to allocate new money this year to fund school resource officers for Florida's elementary schools in a letter sent to the members of the local delegation and other key legislators.
The Work Group was established immediately after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators. The group is made up of representatives from local law enforcement agencies and Alachua County Public Schools and is coordinated by Lt. David Lee of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office.
The group said it has discussed and begun implementing a wide range of strategies related to school safety, from security procedures to facilities improvements. It said one of its top priorities is the placement of a specially-trained school resource officer/deputy in all elementary schools in the district.
Currently, there are officers in all middle and high schools who are jointly funded by the ACSO, the Gainesville Police Department and the school district.
Both ASO and GPD said they're maintaining an increased presence in local elementary schools for the time being, but they said it's a temporary fix unless more funding becomes available.
School districts and law enforcement agencies across the state have experienced deep budget cuts in recent years.
"We appreciate the way local law enforcement has stepped up since Sandy Hook, and we know our parents, students and staff feel more comfortable with the officers on campus," said Superintendent Dan Boyd. "We'd like to keep them there."
In the letter to legislators, local law enforcement officials point to the many benefits of officers in schools, including bullying, truancy and gang prevention and the mentoring of at-risk students.
"I believe there are many opportunities for deputies to have positive and meaningful interactions with children, in addition to their primary role of protection and security," said Sheriff Sadie Darnell.
Officials also say the benefits of officers extend beyond school campuses.
"We are not only going to address potential violence on a school campus," GPD Chief Tony Jones said. "Building relationships with students and parents can also help us prevent crime in our neighborhoods."
The letter to legislators also requests the restoration of state facilities funding for traditional public schools, which was eliminated two years ago. Boyd says it's important that legislators provide new funding to protect students without dipping into the funds used to educate them.
"They should not be robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.
The members of the Work Group stress that their work will continue locally no matter what happens in Tallahassee.
"There are many things we can do to promote school safety in the meantime," Lee said. "We're all committed to working closely with the district and school staff to ensure a safe environment for children and adults."