WEST MELBOURNE, Fla. – To save money and put more officers on the streets, the city of West Melbourne is considering swapping out police officers at schools for armed guards trained through the controversial guardian program.
At a budget workshop Tuesday night, Police Chief Richard Wiley recommended the city begin phasing out school resource officers at its schools, starting with West Melbourne School for Science on Meadowlane Avenue. The city has six Florida TodaySROs, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
The discussion took place the same day a student was shot and killed and eight injured at a charter school in Denver, Colorado, by two students of the school.
At Tuesday's workshop, the seven-member West Melbourne City Council was torn between the economical choice of having armed guards at schools and having the law enforcement expertise of a sworn officer.
The council has until June to make a final decision. No action was taken Tuesday.
Wiley suggested the city pilot the idea at the West Melbourne School for Science, arguing that the elementary campus is right across the street from the police department, and officers would still be stopping by for scheduled checks.
"Let’s see how this first one does," Wiley said. "Having this school protected by an armed security specialist would be helpful because, then, we wouldn’t obviously have to put an officer there."
The school district says it is still its goal to have an SRO at all of its 83 schools.
West Melbourne Mayor Hal Rose and Councilor John Dittmore supported Wiley's proposal, and said the community would be better served with more officers on the streets. Police officers, Dittmore said, are trained to do more "than baby-sit kids at a school."
"They (SROs) are stuck in more of a static security role, which I don’t think is a good use of them to begin with. But I understand the attitudes and the concerns that people had last from last year, obviously," Dittmore said, alluding to the nationwide response after the Parkland shooting.
"I think it’s a good idea of moving to the security specialists. It's what their job is. It's what they're trained to do. ... Where the police officers are more versatile, and can do many different things," Dittmore said.
Councilor Andrea Young said she feared the city was getting complacent by considering scaling back SROs.
"I don’t want one parent to have to come in here, and I don’t want to look one parent in the face and say, 'It was too expensive to save your child,' " she said.
The Brevard County School District adopted the state's guardian program last year after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17. In lieu of training and arming school employees to patrol the schools, as some state lawmakers wanted, the Brevard School Board hired full-time security guards who have backgrounds in military and law enforcement. Before being stationed at schools, they go through 176 hours of training with the sheriff's office.
So far, the sheriff's office has deployed 38 guards at the district schools and charter schools. Most are assigned to elementary schools without dedicated SROs. All of the county's middle schools and high schools have SROs.
The program, which was approved down party lines by the Florida Legislature last year, drew criticism and support in Brevard. The School Board framed its decision to hire armed guards as a compromise.
This legislative session, lawmakers voted to expand the program to allow classroom teachers to participate. It's unclear if the state's expansion will have any impact in Brevard, Florida Today reported.
Despite having the option to place a guard in their schools, some city leaders in Brevard said they would rather have SROs. All schools in Indian Harbour Beach, Melbourne Beach, Rockledge, Satellite Beach and Titusville, for example, have an SRO on campus.
Young said West Melbourne made a similar decision, but appears to be backpedaling now.
"Isn't this the same option that was open to us last year when we went with the SROs?" she asked of the other councilors. "And we didn’t go with that because our residents, our parents absolutely did not want that. They wanted a full-blown police officer."
"Last year, we argued and argued and argued against the school security specialist. We argued, and we listed here all the reasons why we agreed with the parents we wanted an SRO in the schools. And now, a few months later, we’re pooh-poohing that whole thing, and now it’s wonderful," Young said.
Chief Wiley and Mayor Rose said, in talking with school administrators and the sheriff's office, they have heard good things about the security guard program.
Councilor Barbara Smith said she felt the city did not know enough about the school guardian program and what the guards' duties are. And rather than speak with the sheriff's office about how the program is going, Smith said the city should see how families and employees in the schools feel about the program.
"Other than the sheriff saying, 'How wonderful,' what parent — line them up — who's saying, 'I'd rather have a school security specialist than have a trained police officer'?" Smith asked. "Let's know at least what we’re talking about, instead of talking in generalizations, 'I hear they're great, they're really good, people tell me that.' Who? Somebody in the school? Let’s deal with facts here."
Dittmore argued that the city is not mandated to put SROs at every school, but any trained, armed personnel. He said the practice of putting an officer at every school "might be a feel-good program, but it's costing us a lot of money."
Councilor Daniel Batcheldor, who frequently spoke at school board meetings against the guardian program, said, rather than phasing SROs from schools, he'd rather "double-down" on staffing campuses with police officers. He said that is overwhelmingly what citizens in West Melbourne want, according to Florida Today.
"I have not spoken to a teacher, I have not spoken to a resident that is actually in favor of anything but SROs in the West Melbourne schools," he said.
Brevard sheriff's office training for armed guards:
80 hours of firearms training
24 hours of tactical automatic pistol training via firing range and simulator
24 hours of active shooter training, including first aid and CPR
16 hours of defensive tactics training, including firearms retention
12 hours of legal issues training
12 hours of diversity training
8 hours of mental health training
Quarterly retraining on legal issues, firearm proficiency, self-defense and survival tactics
16 hours retraining for annual recertification