Officers will be at elementary schools starting Thursday

Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 9:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 9:08 p.m.

Local authorities will have school resource officers in every elementary school in the county starting today, but a city commissioner stressed that the initiative is merely a "stop-gap measure" — and not a long-term solution.

"There are communities all across the country wrestling with this issue," City Commissioner Lauren Poe said, "but it's more complex than ‘let's just throw some officers in schools.'?"

The new staffing procedures are a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting last month in Newtown, Conn., in which 26 people were slain — 20 of them school children.

The Gainesville Police Department will staff 12 city elementary schools: Duval, Finley, Foster, Glen Springs, Littlewood, Metcalfe, Norton, Rawlings, Talbot, Terwilliger, Williams and the One Room School.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office will staff the remaining 12 schools in the county: Alachua, Archer, Chiles, Hidden Oak, Idylwild, Irby, Lake Forest, Meadowbrook, Newberry, Shell, Waldo and Wiles.

Up until now, only middle and high schools have school resource officers.

GPD spokesman Ben Tobias said the staffing is important for the safety of the community.

"We want the students and their parents to feel comfortable, safe and secure," he said, "and we want administrators and teachers to be able to concentrate on teaching the children instead of worrying about security."

Tobias said staffing will be accomplished by some temporary reassignments and use of overtime funds.

"Basically, it's a shell game," he said. "We are allocating resources where we need them the most without compromising the safety of the citizens of Gainesville."

The cost to staff the 12 schools within city limits will be about $5,100 a day, Tobias said, adding that the cost to hire 12 new officers is estimated at around $1.3 million the first year and about $900,000 each year thereafter, with first-year costs being higher because of expenses like new cars and weapons.

"In an ideal world, where funding and staffing is not an issue, we would simply hire 12 new officers to put in our schools," Tobias said.

ASO spokesman Art Forgey said money will come from the existing budget for the fiscal year, and deputies who serve as school resource officers will be paid overtime, so as not to take any existing deputies off regular duties.

"This is not by any means an indefinite proposition," he said, "because we don't have the funding to do it."

Commissioner Poe said he met with GPD Chief Tony Jones and Dr. Maggie Labarta, president of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare Inc. of Gainesville, to discuss options for preventing a similar tragedy similar to Sandy Hook in Gainesville. Poe said he feels strongly that the mental health aspect is something that should be strongly considered.

He said he asked Jones to put together a recommendation for the commission on what the police department can do in the short term, and in the long term he's looking at programs that could train school officials to identify people with mental health issues. These crimes, he said, are typically carried out by adults.

"Should it be a reason to increase the size of the force purely because of a reactive measure to the Sandy Hook shooting?" he asked. "We need to make sure we're meeting the needs of the community, but whether that means an armed officer in an elementary school, we don't know."

Poe said the decision to hire more officers will need to be made through the budget process, and right now the priority is meeting the immediate costs.

"Long term, what we're talking about is how do we as community officials make sure mental health is a priority," he said. "There's no harm in having an officer there, but there are so many variables. It's not going to solve the problem by itself."

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