OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – Cell phone video from a Kissimmee high school back in January shocked many parents, law enforcement leaders, and school board members.
When a student at Liberty High was slammed to the ground by a school resource officer on camera after fighting with another student, an Osceola County school board member organized a School Resource Officer (SRO) Citizens Task Force, chaired by News 6 Traffic Safety Expert Trooper Steve Montiero.
“We had local realtors, law enforcement representatives, civil rights groups,” Montiero said.
Montiero said the task force took a hard look at SROs - what they’re supposed to do in schools, what they’re actually doing and how they’re doing it.
“And what we realized is the school resource officers were taking more of a force-protection role instead of a community-building role,” Montiero said.
Montiero blamed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act of 2018, passed by Tallahassee lawmakers after the Parkland mass shooting. It mandated an officer or guardian in every single school in the state.
Montiero said, ever since, there’s been a growing disconnect between SROs and students.
How do SROs reconnect with students?
“We put them (SROs) back in the classroom,” Montiero said.
Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly started doing that earlier this year, asking his SROs at elementary schools to start teaching about threats, bullying, bike safety and the role of law enforcement.
The sheriff calls it “B.E.A.R.” - being excellent and respectful.
“We know what kids learn, their behavior, starts at a very young age,” Staly said. “So I felt we needed to get more engaged and have a true curriculum.”
But Osceola County is doing the opposite - taking SROs out of charter schools and replacing them with guardians - certified security guards, trained by the sheriff’s office.
Major Dan Weis oversees the SRO program at the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office.
“When we look at the charter schools, statistically the calls for service and things of that nature are very low,” Weis said.
Weis said the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office is so shorthanded, it must pull deputies from certain schools to put them back on the streets.
“And if you look across the State of Florida, a lot of districts have guardians at charter schools,” Weis said. “When Sheriff Lopez took over this year, we had over 51 vacancies so we evaluated where our resources come from. Because it’s not necessarily a money thing this day and age, it’s so difficult to hire deputies. So we’re looking at ways how we can do this. So we reviewed that and made the decision [to remove SROs from charter schools]. SROs make up 14% of our workforce, so where can we grab a resource to help, because the Sheriff is responsible for public safety for the whole county.”
The task force recommended that all SROs remain at Osceola County schools. The task force also recommended that all SROs in Osceola County be equipped with body cameras. The Osceola County School Board approved the recommendations.
Weis said Lopez doesn’t agree with the body camera recommendation.
“Absolutely we are 100% in favor of getting our SROs body cameras, but to do that right now it’ll cost our agency over $265,000, so we have to do that incrementally,” Weis said. “Our body cameras, we put them on our first responders. Statistics show that the number of incidents that happen in the schools doesn’t even come close to our first responders that are on the streets. So we need to put body cameras first on the people responding as first responders.”
Weis said there is no timeframe on how long it is will take to buy body cameras for all SROs in Osceola County.
The deputy at Liberty High School did not have a body camera; in fact, none do at Osceola County schools. The video that recorded the violent encounter with the student and deputy was recorded by another student and only showed the end of the incident.
The deputy is still under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
News 6 checked with every other sheriff’s office across Central Florida and most police agencies. All said they have SROs in all schools, and all SROs wear body cameras, except Brevard county.
Besides Osceola, Brevard is the only other sheriff’s office in Central Florida that does not equip any of its SROs with body cameras.
All law enforcement agencies confirmed to News 6 their SROs are required to take a School Resource Officer Basic Training Course either before or upon becoming an SRO.
Weis said Osceola County SROs are required to take the Basic Training course within one year of being assigned as an SRO.