VIERA, Fla. – In a surprising turn of events, Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who has been aggressively pushing to train and arm school staff since the shooting in Parkland, now recommends the School Board table implementing a marshal program.
Ivey said he is concerned that the proposal to arm school staff, which has sparked fierce debate among Brevard resident, has overshadowed the conversation around hiring more school resource officers to police school campuses, and that there will not be enough time to recruit and train school marshals for the upcoming school year.
"I have asked them to pull the marshal program out of consideration for the time being, and the only reason for that ... is it has consumed the bigger conversation, the more important conversation about the school resources officers and deputies for our schools," Ivey told News 6 partner Florida Today on Tuesday.
The recommendation comes as somewhat of a surprise. Just last week, the Sheriff's Office released a video on its Facebook page breaking down the program and told those trying to insert "politics, the second amendment or automatic weapons" into the conversation to "stop it."
"I believe in my heart, in my 39 years of experience, that this is the best thing to do to protect our students," Ivey said of the marshal program at a press conference a week after the shooting in Parkland. Ivey said he still believes arming school staff is a crucial component to school security. He will pursue implementing the program in Brevard at another time.
Superintendent Desmond Blackburn, who has said he is open to the idea of arming school staff but has remained mostly silent on the issue, said he agrees with the sheriff's new position.
"I understand where he's coming from and I agree with the position he's coming from in that this is a very talked-about conversation," Blackburn said. "Out of all four layers of our security plan, this layer has, for all the right reasons, has generated a great bit of tension and concern. That said, I agree with his position that it has taken time and energy from our focus on the other three elements of the plan that are also very important."
Other elements of Ivey's security plan include active-shooter training for students and staff, building upgrades, an anonymous tip line to report suspicious behavior and a relatively new program at the district's alternative learning centers.
Decision on the school board
Even with Ivey's new recommendation, the decision whether to arm school staff rests in the hands of Brevard's five elected school board members, who have yet to discuss the proposal publicly.
According to the law — the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act —that passed the Florida Legislature in response to the Parkland shooting in which 17 people were killed, local sheriff's offices must provide the necessary training for the state marshal program if local school boards opt to implement such a program.
School Board Vice Chair Tina Descovich said she was "greatly concerned" about Ivey's new recommendation to table the program "because I believe we need the guardian program to keep our students safe," and said she will be pushing to pursue the program further.
"According to Sheriff Ivey, it can take up to two years, even if we had the funds, to have an SRO in every school, and I want to make sure our students are protected sooner than that," she said.
If the school board rejects his proposal to table the marshal program and ultimately votes to adopt it, Ivey said he would be "absolutely willing and able" to provide the necessary training. However, Ivey added that the window of time to recruit and train school marshals is already closing.
"It certainly puts us behind the eight ball," he said. "There's no doubt about that. Time is of the essence in terms of the marshal program and school resource officers. Our window of time for training on the marshal program is collapsing."
Training would have to take place over the summer when school is out of session. Ivey has previously detailed the 176 hours he'd require for volunteers, on top of psychological screenings, background checks and oral interviews candidates would have to go through.
Whether the school board decides to table the marshal program, Blackburn said the district will host a series of community forums and surveys to gather community and employee feedback. Descovich expects board members to discuss the program at Tuesday's board meeting.
Money for SROs scarce
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act provides $67 million to be split among districts to pay for the marshal program and includes money for SROs, mental health programs and building security upgrades. It mandates by the beginning of next school year either an SRO on every school campus or a school employee who has been trained through the marshal program.
The Brevard County School Board has said it cannot afford to put an SRO in every school as the law requires. The district has 37 SROs and would need another 51 at traditional public schools and charter schools to meet the requirements of the law.
When asked how the district would meet the requirements if the marshal program is no longer an option, Blackburn said, "The answer is we're still trying to figure it out."
Based on Ivey's estimates of $130,000 per officer, which includes salary, benefits, a car and equipment, it could cost up to $7.8 million to hire the necessary officers. The school district's chief financial officer estimated the district will only receive about $2.4 million from the state for SROs.
The school board and Brevard County Sheriff's Office are talking about rewriting their cost-sharing agreement for SROs. Ivey's office has covered a portion of the costs, and in order to meet the requirements of the new law, is looking into absorbing more costs.
"I've dug into every corner I can to find the best way to save money for the school board," he said.
On Tuesday, Blackburn joined superintendents across the state in asking the State Legislature to make more funds available to put SROs in every school. The Florida Association of District School Superintendents penned a letter to the state requesting that $64 million in vetoed projects be reallocated to school districts to use for operating costs and that districts be allowed to use money earmarked for the state marshal program to hire SROs.
"...Superintendents are in the difficult position of having to consider participation in the guardian program when the school personnel and the community may be opposed to the program," the letter states.