Sheriff to add 7 School Resource Officers

OKEECHOBEE — At their March 22 meeting, Okeechobee County Commissioners gave the sheriff the green light to hire seven new deputies.

The sheriff requested for a budget amendment up to the amount of $550,911 for seven additional School Resource Officers (SROs) for six months of FY17/18 due to legislation passed for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS Public Safety Act. The commissioners did not approve a specific budget amount, pending a workshop with the school board. Currently the school board and the county each provide a percentage of the funding for SRO program.

Sheriff Stephen said state legislation is “quite in-depth” and will require lot of interpretation.

“There is a lot of responsibility that has been put on my shoulders as the sheriff of Okeechobee County,” he said.

He said he is working with school, county and city officials to “do what we need to do to protect our number one assert — our kids.”

He said there are threat assessment teams at each school.

Some programs promoted by the state are only effective with parental support, he explained. “A lot of our discipline problems with our youth are directly reflective of lack of support in the home.”

The state law requires a certified law enforcement officer in each school.

Currently, the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) has six in the SRO program including the supervisor. There are SROs at Okeechobee High School, Okeechobee Freshman Campus, Osceola Middle School, Yearling Middle School and Okeechobee Achievement Academy. Each of the SROs has also been assigned an elementary school and a private school. He said the SROs conduct daily security checks at the elementary schools and are on-call if the elementary schools need assistance. For example, the SRO at Osceola Middle School is also available to help South Elementary School, which is across the street.

He said the state has set the ratio of SROs to students at 1,000 to one. That means the high school should have a second SRO.

“This bill states there is supposed to be an armed person in every school today,” said the sheriff. “I don’t have the staffing to move around to facilitate that.”

The sheriff said to increase law enforcement presence at the schools, road patrol officers have starting parking in the school parking lots to do their paperwork. He said they check in with the front office of the schools when they are on site.

The state would need $380 million in recurring funding to pay for SROs for every public school in Florida, he said. The state has allocated $160 million with no guarantee of continuing funding.

This is not enough funding to put a school resource officer on every campus, he continued.

Funding does not take into account the cost of supervision, relief factors and start up costs, he said.

“I can’t just take 10 officers and fulfill the statutory requirement that has been put on me.

I’ve got 10 deputies per shift to cover this entire county,” he said.

He requested funding for a total of 13 SROs to take care of the schools, relief factor and supervision. This includes two SROs for Okeechobee High School and one SRO at each of the other public schools.

The sheriff said he needs to move forward with recruiting new officers.

“I feel these officers are needed and necessary for me to find today. I cannot take a new rookie and put them in the schools and expect for them to be effective,” he said.

He said he expects some experienced staff will apply to move into the new SRO positions, so most of the new officers will be on road patrol.

Commissioner Culpepper asked what the SROs would do when school is out. He noted school is only in session five days a week for about 7 hours a day.

The sheriff explained that the statute says there must be an SRO on campus not just during the school day, but when there are kids on campus.

“This is now obligating us to basketball games, soccer games, volleyball games and after school activities,” he said.

He said he would like to put SROs on a schedule like the teachers, where they would bank the extra time they spend at school for school activities in order to take off school holidays and a month every summer.

He said he thinks this would make the job more appealing to the officers.

“There are 66 other counties in this state that are going to be trying to hire School Resource Officers,” said Commissioner Bradley Goodbread. He said it is not going to be easy to find qualified applicants to hire,

The sheriff noted that OCSO starting salary for deputies is $34,000 while a neighboring county starts deputies at $42,000, which does make it harder to find applicants.

Commissioner David Hazellief said the county should commit to fund the positions needed.

“It’s our duty to see that he (the sheriff) has what he needs to protect our citizens and our property,” said Commissioner Goodbread.

Commissioner Kelly Owens said the state went through a horrific event and the end result was a “knee-jerk reaction at the state level.”

“The fact is that this is an unfunded mandate,” she said.

“The end result is that the tax payers are going to have to bear the brunt of the difference that is not funded.

“Our responsibility is to do this in the most appropriate and economical way,” she said.

She suggested that before decisions are made in reference to funding, the county and school board should have a workshop to discuss the funding allocations.

“We need to do this collectively, pro actively, responsibility and with a spirit of cooperation,” she said.

“It is going to cost us money,” the commissioner said. “We have to expect that.”

She said other services are going to be compromised as a result of this unfunded mandate.

“I don’t have any problem with you starting today,” said Chairman Burroughs. “I think you should start looking for your people today.”

He added that the agreement with the school board should be renegotiated.

A workshop with city, county and school board officials was tentatively scheduled for April 11.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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