School police tensions rise with anonymous letter to DeSantis

The Palm Beach Post | By Sonja Isger | February 24, 2022

The years-long debate over whether the sheriff’s office should take over the school police force escalated this week when an unknown number of unnamed officers emailed Gov. Ron DeSantis to complain that conditions have reached a crisis point. 

The email took aim at scores of vacancies within the force as well as longstanding problems in emergency communications and suggested a merger with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office would resolve those problems. 

Word of the email sent to the governor and first reported by WBPF-Channel 25 prompted school district officials to issue their own statement, which assured, “The District has never, and will never, compromise on the safety and security of our students and staff.”

“The School District of Palm Beach County, which operates a fully accredited and highly trained police force, has no plans of entering into conversations with any other law enforcement agency regarding a merger,” the statement said.

The district acknowledged that the police force is down 68 officers, but added that 248 are serving on its 179 district-operated campuses and every campus has at least one officer on property every school day.

Some of those campuses are covered by police via contract with local law enforcement departments.  

The president of the police union, which is in contract negotiations with the district, said reports of the email took him by surprise. The  email, signed by “Concerned parents of Palm Beach County Schools and the rank and file of the Palm Beach County School District Police Department,” was not part of a union action to involve the governor. 

“I’ve been very vocal in supporting a merger with the sheriff’s office, but I wouldn’t go writing a letter,” said John Kazanjian, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. “I feel the frustration of the police officers, but there’s a process and we need to stick to that process.

Union president: ‘We need to convince’ school board to merge with PBSO

“School board members need to vote on it and we need to convince them,” Kazanjian said Wednesday. And if they can’t be convinced, voters should take note in the fall when four board seats are up for grabs, he said.

The union has brought a bevy of concerns to the bargaining table, including school officers being underpaid and understaffed. As far back as 2008, it has argued that the police radio system is inadequate and defaulting to cellphones is problematic in buildings where service is spotty or unavailable, Kazanjian said. 

The challenges were heightened in the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting and the state laws that followed demanding that every campus be covered by armed security or police officers. 

About a year ago, school board member Karen Brill suggested the board revisit the option of a sheriff’s office takeover of the work, but she withdrew the item before the meeting. Brill later said that then Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy persuaded her to drop the matter for the time being. 

The police department is operating under interim leadership because Chief Daniel Alexander resigned in January after only eight months on the job. The previous chief, Frank Kitzerow, resigned in April as tensions mounted between district leadership and the police union. 

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