Lawmakers discuss Florida school safety costs

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Bulletproof glass, more police in schools as well as additional guidance counselors and teacher training to help prevent trouble before it starts are some ideas that Florida lawmakers are talking about in response to last month's Connecticut school massacre.

Members of a Senate budget committee on Wednesday also said Florida should ask the federal government for more school security funding after hearing from a panel of local education officials.

Facing a series of revenue shortfalls, the state has cut its own spending for school safety programs by 15 percent over the past five years. It currently allocates $64.5 million to Florida schools while the federal government chips in only $1.25 million.

Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, asked a state Department of Education official if Florida intends to seek more federal dollars.

Sam Foerster, deputy chancellor of student achievement and school improvement, said that question would be asked at the Legislature's direction, but he was not optimistic about getting a positive response.

"The general temperature seems to be similar from the federal government as from state government in that it's difficult to ask for more," he said.

School districts spend 65 percent of their state security funding, or $42.2 million, on school resource officers. Many systems also spend local dollars to keep officers in their schools and most split the total 50/50 with law enforcement agencies although some districts contribute larger percentages.

Committee chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the panel would pin down exactly what it costs to place an officer in a school.

Most resource officers are stationed at high schools and middle schools. Few are in elementary schools such as the one in Newtown, Conn., where a shooter killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

"Our elementary schools at this point in time feel pretty vulnerable," Volusia County Deputy Superintendent Robert Moll said.

Volusia lost half its 28 resource officers in 2008 when the sheriff's office pulled its matching funds because of budget cuts, Moll said. The district also has 66 "campus advisers" who act as its "eyes and ears" in high schools and middle schools. None of the resource officers or advisers are stationed at elementary schools.

Orange County spends half its $5 million from the state on resources officers - two at each high school, one at each middle school and a rotating officer for every four elementary schools, said Scott Howat, the district's senior executive director for planning and government relations.

After the Connecticut shooting, however, Orange County commissioners agreed to provide additional dollars to place an officer in each elementary school in unincorporated areas, Howat said. He said school officials were asking Orlando and other cities to help them increase police presence in their elementary schools, as well.

Local officials were united in urging lawmakers to give them more flexibility in how they can spend state security dollars including capital outlay for such things as fences and barriers.

Many Florida schools are vulnerable because they have sprawling campuses with classroom doors that open directly to the outside.

Besides resource officers, state funding currently can be used for bullying and suicide prevention, alternative schools, behavior intervention as well as disciplinary and after-school programs.

Sens. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said most school shootings have been committed by students or former students. He suggested that counseling and mental health services could prevent those scenarios. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, agreed.

"If we have more guidance counselors, we might need less grief counselors," Detert said.

She noted the Newtown gunman had to "shoot his way in" because the school had tight security and the staff reacted heroically, likely preventing further carnage. Detert said the only thing missing was bulletproof glass and urged the panel to look into what it would cost to install in Florida schools.

Hukill said teachers should be trained to recognize problems and report them to the proper authorities.

"Teachers see so much," she said. "They see things they may not identify with a particular issue."

Baker County School Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson told lawmakers there's no way to be 100-percent secure after Bullard pointed out that Florida has avoided mass school killings that have occurred in other states.

"Any us of us could be a Connecticut," Raulerson said.

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.