Osceola task force feels betrayed by meeting to replace charter school SROs with armed staff

Orlando Sentinel | by Cristóbal Reyes | April 28, 2021

The Osceola County superintendent had a meeting with heads of law enforcement last week that discussed replacing school resource officers at charter school campuses, leaving members of an advisory committee feeling betrayed.

Members of the SRO Citizens Advisory Task Force, which began looking at the county’s SRO program after an Osceola deputy stationed at Liberty High School slammed a 16-year-old student into a campus walkway, were angered after finding out about the meeting this week.

Kissimmee Police Department Chief Jeff O’Dell, St. Cloud police Chief Pete Gauntlett and sheriff’s office Maj. Dan Weis are all members of the task force but never voiced support for a guardian programwhich replaces police on school campuses with armed school employees or contracted security.

“We had multiple meetings and at no time was it hinted that they were considering even using guardians at all,” said Julius Meléndez, the school board member who created the committee. “It made me feel like the decision to have a guardian program was already pre-determined.”

An email sent Monday to school board members by Superintendent Debra Pace mentioned a meeting the Kissimmee Police Department confirmed happened last Wednesday.

Spokeswoman Dana Schafer said the meeting was to discuss possibly removing SROs for armed guardians, after heads of local law enforcement said it was “increasingly difficult to ensure daily coverage on every charter school campus through off-duty assignments.”

A public meeting to discuss a possible guardian program was set for May 6 at 8:30 p.m., though it was initially planned to be held behind closed doors, according to the email obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

O’Dell said Wednesday he went to the meeting with Osceola Sheriff Marco López after pitching the idea to him and Gauntlett about a charter school guardian program, with which they agreed. A guardian program that would have covered all Osceola schools was unanimously rejected by the Osceola school board in May 2019.

“I am now in a more informed position to support a guardian program,” O’Dell said in an emailed statement. “We better understand the impact on police operations to provide coverage to all schools throughout the school year, coupled with the fact that a number of school districts across Florida have run successful guardian programs for years.”

The Sheriff’s Office and the St. Cloud Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The possible pivot toward armed guardians at Osceola charter schools was first reported by WFTV, but the TV station did not mention the email detailing a meeting between Pace and law enforcement leaders.

Called the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, it was created as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act following the massacre at the Parkland high school. Dozens of counties statewide use the program to allow their agencies to focus primarily on policing in the community.

Vacancies at Osceola’s agencies ahead of renegotiations of school district contracts, which expire late June, inspired consideration for the change. In Central Florida, Lake, Volusia and Polk counties participate in the program, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Orange County Public Schools denied it participates in the program and its board passed a resolution rejecting it in 2019, though it is listed by the state Department of Education among school districts that do.

“Our school board actually does not support arming school staff but rather allowing sworn law enforcement officers to respond to an emergency,” OCPS spokesperson Lorena Arias said in an email.

Meléndez and other critics say the work of armed civilians providing security cannot compare to that of law enforcement, who have access to criminal databases and intelligence typically inaccessible to anyone other than sworn officers.

“Arming a civilian with limited training compared to the full scope of training of a law enforcement officer — how is a guardian going to react in the case, heaven forbid, ofa real school shooting?” Meléndez said.

Beginning in January, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office moved several deputies to different areas of the agency, culminating partly in the disbandment of its gang unit. Several deputies working at the Sheriff’s Office’s school safety division either retired or were also transferred to various patrol divisions, according to agency records.

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Nirva Rodríguez said at the time that the move was to “provide better service to the community and faster response times.” The agency also has a job listing on its website for a 10-month contract as a school safety officer.

But it also has to do with the cost for on-campus security. About $770,000 was allocated to staff Osceola’s charter schools with SROs, about 25 total, school budget documents for the 2020-2021 school year show.

“We had to gut our agency to put SROs in” after state law and school district policy mandated on-campus officers be placed in schools, said Weis, the Osceola sheriff’s major, during the task force’s March 24 meeting. “We’re still recovering from that today.”

Weis also cited agency priorities when discussing outfitting its 65 on-campus deputies with body cameras, a move unanimously recommended by the task force on April 13. The rest of its recommendations, many of which were lauded by school safety experts, are expected to be finalized Thursday.

Last week’s meeting will also be discussed, Meléndez said.

“The findings don’t change,” he said. “It’s up to law enforcement and the school board to go with those recommendations or go against the recommendations. We’re not going to change what we feel is the proper course of action because of the politics of the situation.”

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