Should PBSO patrol public schools? A school board member wants to revive the debate.

Palm Beach Post | by Andrew Marra | March 23, 2021

 A Palm Beach County School Board member wants to reopen the years-long debate over whether the sheriff’s office should take over the public schools’ campus police force.

Board member Karen Brill said she will ask her school board colleagues Wednesday to join her in directing the school district to solicit a takeover proposal from Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.

The possibility of a sheriff’s office takeover of the school district’s police department has been raised, and dismissed, several times over the years, most recently in the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting massacre.

But Brill said she believes the issue has new salience now that the coronavirus pandemic has both destabilized school finances and pushed educators to reinvent how they deliver services to students.

Palm Beach County School Board member Karen Brill talks during a school board meeting in November 2020.

Palm Beach County School Board member Karen Brill talks during a school board meeting on November 2020. The Palm Beach Post/Lannis Waters

In an interview Monday, Brill stopped short of endorsing a takeover outright. 

But she said letting the sheriff’s office patrol and safeguard the district’s roughly 180 campuses could improve security and save the public schools millions of dollars a year, making it worthy of serious consideration.

“It would be fiscally irresponsible for us not to explore an option that could be a win-win,” she said Monday. “We can’t be close-minded. We’ve got to think creatively.”

The push to explore a sheriff’s office takeover has the support of the county’s powerful police union, which represents both sheriff’s deputies and school district officers. Becoming sheriff’s deputies would mean pay raises for most officers, the union says.

“We’re all for that,” said John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association. “What I always tell everybody is it’s a win-win. It’s a win for the agency and for the men and women who work here.”

It is also longtime interest of Bradshaw, who has worked to expand his agency’s jurisdiction throughout his 16-year tenure and argues his deputies are better positioned to keep campuses safe.

In the past 15 years, the sheriff’s office has taken over police operations in Lake Worth, Greenacres, Belle Glade and Royal Palm Beach.

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Teri Barbera said Monday that Bradshaw’s “only interest is the safety of the students and school personnel in Palm Beach County, in whatever form this is accomplished.”

She added in an email that “we will submit a proposal if the PBC school board should ask.”

When the debate has surfaced in past years, school board members have been reluctant to relinquish control of their own police force.

School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri and School District Police Chief Frank Kitzerow both declined to respond to requests for comment.

In 2018, a grand jury convened by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg accused the school board of investing too few resources in school security and admonished the school district to either “adequately fund” its police department or let the sheriff’s office take control.

Since then, the district has hired dozens of new officers to comply with a new state law that requires a police officer or security guard to patrol every public school in Florida. The department now has more than 250 employees.

But Kazanjian said that despite the rapid expansion, the department is plagued by high turnover and low morale.

“The morale is low, really bad,” he said. “They’re very top-heavy.”

The proposal is likely to be opposed by Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy, who has argued that a sheriff’s office takeover would cost the public schools more money, not less.

Other skeptics say transferring control of policing responsibilities from a school system to a law enforcement agency could lead to more campus arrests and fewer interventions that avoid sending students into the criminal justice system.

“The school police officers are trained to assist students. The sheriff is trained to arrest,” LaTanzia Jackson, then-chairwoman of the Coalition of Black Student Achievement, said in 2013.

Brill has scheduled a discussion at Wednesday’s board meeting regarding whether to “direct the Superintendent to ask the Palm Beach County Sheriff for a proposal to merge with our School Police Department.”

Featured image: Students walk to classes past Jupiter and school district police during the first day of classes Monday at Jupiter Elementary School. RICHARD GRAULICH/THE PALM BEACH POST

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