Osceola school district to explore guardian program at charters despite misgivings

Orlando Sentinel | by Cristóbal Reyes | May 6, 2021

Osceola County school board members said at a meeting Thursday they will explore replacing resource officers with armed staff at nearly all the district’s charter schools, but most say they are against such a move for now.

The consideration comes as heads of local law enforcement agencies, led by Kissimmee police Chief Jeff O’Dell, said they struggle with staffing shortages nearly three years after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act mandated some form of armed security presence on public school campuses.

On-campus officers make up about a tenth of KPD’s staffing, similar to other Osceola agencies, while charter schools make up less than 1% of calls for service, he said.

“Now we’re in a different position. We’re almost three school years later, and we’re seeing the impact on our agency,” O’Dell said. “We’re responsible for our entire communities, and we’re pulling resources to staff this and it can grow very quickly that we can’t keep up with it. Now we have to say we have to reassess.”

But school board members said they are against replacing SROs at the charter schools, with recently-elected Jon Argüello calling such a move “a punishment on people who choose charter schools.” O’Dell and others have said school administrators initially brought up cost when contracting for SROs but would not say who has been in contact with the school district.

Bellalago Academy, a charter school in Kissimmee, would be exempt from a pivot to a guardian program because it’s district-managed, spokeswoman Dana Schafer said.

“We’re not removing the cancer, we’re just killing the person here” by adding armed staff to schools in lieu of sworn officers, Argüello said. “The sense of security that people get from having a police officer on campus is much different than having a security guard.”

Though she declined to make a representative available for an interview, Imagine Schools spokesperson Marisa Preuss said in a statement the company utilizes both SROs and armed guardians across its 16 campuses, among those being Imagine Kissimmee Academy.

Representatives of other charter school companies — like Charter Schools USA, which operates seven Osceola County campuses, and Mater Academy Inc., which runs four — did not immediately return messages seeking interviews.

“The safety and security of our students and staff is always our highest priority at Imagine Schools,” Preuss said. “Together with our governing boards, parents, and staff, we are always evaluating the safety needs of our campus to ensure proper security measures are in place — whether that be through an SRO or armed guardian — to best protect our school community.”

School board members and law enforcement heads want to resolve the issue of adding guardians to charter schools before the end of June, when contracts with the school district governing on-campus officers are set to expire.

Board member Terry Castillo, who was part of the unanimous vote in May 2019 against a countywide guardian program, said she has questions about how such a program would work logistically and whether charter school administrators would even support it.

“I want to hear from the charter schools. At the end of the day, we’re responsible for all students, but their voice is missing here,” Castillo said. “If we have a decision made as a community … I want to make sure I am the most informed as possible.”

The mandate for armed security at schools came after the shooting at the Parkland high school. In the event of a guardian program being created in Osceola, Sheriff Marco López said he envisions it being staffed by military veterans. Chief Deputy John Haydel added that combat vets are adequately equipped to protect schools, pointing to the SRO who never confronted the shooter during the 2018 massacre.

“Until you get that situation, we can’t guarantee anything,” Haydel said. “I pray to God that every officer can do it, but that’s not saying they can. Most combat veterans, though, have experience with that.”

“You can have all the training in the world, but there are people who go into combat who freeze and fall over,” López later told reporters.

Most counties statewide currently have a guardian program, including Lake, Polk and Volusia in Central Florida, according to the Florida Department of Education. Many areas opt to hire guardians to alleviate smaller or otherwise constrained agencies, though Florida law mandates sheriff’s offices provide the 144 hours of required training and evaluations before they’re allowed to step onto a campus.

O’Dell was met with backlash after an April 21 meeting with Sheriff Marco López and Superintendent Debra Pace to discuss adding guardians to charters without notifying members of a task force that reviewed the county’s SRO program. Though he again acknowledged Thursday he had offended some on the task force of which he is a member, he doubled down on the move by saying, “it was not in the purview of the advisory board.”

Last week, the SRO Citizens Advisory Task Force released its 43-page report on the program in which it partly voiced its opposition to having a guardian program while recommending the school board explore the possibility after the meeting came to light in an April 26 email.

Among the recommendations was for the Osceola school district to study creating its own police department “should the need arise,” an idea echoed by Argüello in the event the school board opt for a charter school guardian program, which garnered gasps from some at the meeting.

“I want a police officer at every school, and I think that the community would want that too,” he said. “And to be honest, I think that you guys should be just as invested in having police officers at school as we are.”

Image: Osceola County Schools Board meeting. Orlando Sentinel

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