TAMPA, Florida -- The Newtown, Connecticut shooting is making school leaders and law enforcement officials ask how they can make schools safer. One idea: adding school resource officers to elementary schools.
The Hillsborough school district has assigned a deputy or officer to each of its 142 elementary schools in the school district this week.
Some Hillsborough school board members and the teacher's union say every idea is being considered. What may stand in the way? Money. Hillsborough has 76 SRO's in all of its middle school and high schools, and about 20 elementary schools such as have one on standby if needed. The cost to the school district is $4 million a year; that's just half of the cost the law enforcement agency providing the officer or deputy pays the other half.
A Tampa police officer patrolling an elementary school campus is an unusual site, one Mitchell Elementary School Principal Joanne Baumgartner would like to see every day. Baumgartner says, "This week has been comforting for students, staff, our families. It's a heightened security that's been very comforting."
Assigning a permanent SRO at an elementary school costs around $60,000. The school district and law enforcement agency would split the bill.
Police officers say SROs help build positive relationships with students. Sgt. Kert Rojka heads the SRO program for the Tampa Police Department. He says, "We want children when they go to middle school and high school ... law enforcement is there to help not just when things go wrong, but to help prevent bad things from happening."
Parent and substitute teacher Greta Brooks says she feels safe at Mitchell Elementary and thinks an officer isn't needed at that grade level. "I think a police presence makes it scary for children, makes them think about all the bad things in the world. There has to be another way to have security that is not so visible to small children," she says.
Mitchell Elementary is surrounded by an iron fence with a panic alarm that sounds off if someone tries to get in from the outside. And getting inside isn't easy. There is one way in -- the front door -- and it's locked. You have to be buzzed in. A camera by the door allows office staff to see who is outside on a video monitor in the office.
Once inside, visitors have to sign in and swipe their driver's license. The system checks for sexual predators.
According to school sources, one idea districts may look at is hiring their own school security officers who are trained and armed, instead of SROs, for elementary schools.
Mitchell Elementary's principal says her school is fortunate. Besides a PTA, the school has a foundation that raises money for large purchases. Baumgartner says at the group is meeting next month, and they will talk about hiring their own SRO.