ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - School safety is the No. 1 priority of the St. Johns County School Board and it was the primary topic of a workshop held Tuesday to address how to beef up security and comply with Florida’s new law requiring a resource officer or other trained, armed person at each school by August.
That requirement is a major part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act that was signed into law last month, barely a month after a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. The district said adding more deputies would cost millions.
At the workshop, not only did school leaders discuss school resource officers, they also addressed the mental health aspect of the school safety bill.
SJC school resource deputy status
In addition to hiring more St. Johns County deputies to staff schools, the board is considering two other options: creating a school district police force similar to Duval County's School Board police, or the newly established Guardian Program, in which the Sheriff's Office would train and equip non-teaching school personnel to carry guns on campus.
Kelly Aguirrechu is a St. Johns County parent and also a volunteer with the advocacy group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which believes arming school employees could lead to trouble.
"We're not sure if they would get enough training," Aguirrechu said. "Confusion can happen when police officers enter the scene. It can add to confusion when you have a regular citizen who has a gun."
Three board members shared that concern, and Superintendent Tim Forson responded with a "hybrid model" that could include a combination of deputies, school resource officers and armed school personnel.
At Tuesday's workshop, the district also addressed expanding mental health services to students.
District leaders recommended adding two additional school psychologists, six more mental health counselors, and three social workers, two full time and one part time. Their salaries and benefits would be paid through state money, although there’s no guarantee that state funds will be made available after the first year.
"We're seeing just tragic occurrences that involve those that need support," Forson said. "I think, to make this better in the long term, we have to address the mental health piece."
Forson said the hope is to move forward with both security and mental health staffing issues in June.
St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar sent a letter to the St. Johns County Commission, outlining his concerns and his skepticism about the cost-effectiveness of putting a deputy in all 40 of the county's public schools next school year.
Shoar wrote that, in addition to the 25 extra deputies needed, eight deputies who would serve as backups and four supervisors would be needed -- a total of 37 new law enforcement positions.
The sheriff estimated the cost of 37 new sworn deputies would be $5.5 million -- for just the first year.
The state is only providing a fraction of that money -- $1.4 million -- so the county has to come up with a funding source, not just for the next school year, but for subsequent years.
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