Clay County District Schools has hired a veteran law enforcement officer to oversee the formation of a school district police department and retained a former Clay County sheriff to help with the process.
The Clay County School Board voted 4-1 Tuesday morning to move forward with its decision to form a school district police department despite questions from parents and Clay County's sheriff on whether it can have certified officers in place by the beginning of the next school year.
The resolution establishes a school district police department to request a permit from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and gives the district the power to appoint school safety officers.
About an hour after the school board voted in favor of moving forward with the decision to form its own police force, which it initially made two weeks ago, Superintendent Addison Davis announced he had hired Lt. Kenneth Wagner, a 20-year veteran with the Clay County Sheriff's Office, as a director and proposed chief for the new department.
Wagner was a lieutenant with the sheriff's office and most recently supervisor of the sheriff's office's school resource officers.
Davis also announced that former Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler will serve as a consultant in the formation of the department.
In his remarks, Davis addressed what he called misinformation about plans to form a school police department. Davis said the department will be staffed with fully certified and trained law enforcement professionals who pass physicals and background checks, and they will look for candidates who have experience working in educational facilities.
"We will work diligently to hire the most qualified candidates," Davis said.
Davis said forming the department will allow the county to have a sworn officer in every Clay County school, calling it the right decision balancing fiscal responsibility and the safety mandate required by the state.
Controversy at school board meeting
The decision for the school district to form its own police force has been a hot topic among Clay County neighbors since the board first voted on it two weeks ago. A school board representative said the decision to move forward with this came in wake of the one-year anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The estimated cost to run the department would be more than $6 million for the first year and $4 million for the second year. The department would have 47 members including:
- 36 school resource officers
- 3 relief school resource officers
- 1 detective
- 4 sergeants
- 2 lieutenants
- 1 chief
Daniels made a statement that was posted online earlier this month by his department. He said he believes the school district rushed to make a decision on this and didn't think this plan through.
"I want our kids kept safe just like the parents want their kids kept safe. I can't allow the sheriff's office to idly stand by and let the district fail," Daniels said.
Controversy continued Tuesday when the school board members voted to move forward with the idea
Board members told News4Jax that they feel Tuesday's meeting was stacked with opponents to the district's plan to form its own police force.
During the meeting, some parents were outraged, even calling the officers that the school district intends to hire "mall cops."
"I feel like if a shooter comes in a school, they’re going to react appropriately. They’re not going to run and I don’t know that setting up a police force in six months that you’re going to get the same thing," parent Brandie Orr told News4Jax. "What you’re going to get is a bunch of angry parents that are going to start moving their kids elsewhere."
The meeting continued to deteriorate as parents tried to cut off the board discussion, saying members refused to answer questions.
In the end, despite doubts from Daniels and intense criticism from some parents, school board members voted 4-1 to start its own police department. School board member Ashley Gilhousen was the lone dissenting vote, agreeing with the sheriff that this is the wrong move. But the prevailing board members said misinformation has spread through social media and this, in fact, is the best move for Clay County schools.
"The safety of our students certainly is of utmost importance to the sheriff’s office, Board of County Commissioners and the school board," school board Chairwoman Carol Studdard said.
Wagner disputes criticism by some parents that the officers will be the equivalent of mall cops who didn’t do well in the police academy.
"We are looking at hiring experienced law enforcement officers to establish this police department --officers that may have 10, 15, 20 years already on. Maybe they are retired. Maybe they want a change and (want) to be an SRO. Maybe they want to be part of this new plan the district has," Wagner said. "It’s a wonderful thing to be on the beginning footsteps of a police department being established."
The board said this brings multiple things to the district. One, it provides officers in elementary schools. It also provides around-the-clock coverage of schools even when classes are not in session. There will still be agreements with Orange Park and Green Cove Springs police departments to help with staffing at certain schools. Additionally, it saves the district money.
There was criticism of Daniels by some board members for not agreeing to foot more of the bill for school security. The sheriff's office told News4Jax that Daniels wasn’t able to be at Tuesday's announcement because of a prior commitment, and he will be reviewing Tuesday's vote and will likely have a response later this week.
It will take the district six to seven weeks to determine whether it gets the OK from the state for this plan. Then the district will work to have the police force working by the beginning of the next school year.