Law officers providing elementaries more than security

Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 6:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 6:07 p.m.

Posting law enforcement officials at local elementary schools was a precaution implemented in the wake of the Newtown shooting in December, but it has become more than a security measure, officials said Tuesday.

Protection is the primary objective of the Alachua County sheriff's deputies and Gainesville Police Department officials who work at these schools, but they are also developing relationships with the teachers, parents and students they serve.

"One of the main goals that we have is that children at a very early age see us as good people," Sheriff Sadie Darnell told the County Commission Tuesday. "Not someone to run from, but someone to run to."

Darnell, along with GPD Chief Tony Jones and Alachua County Superintendent Dan Boyd, gave an update to the board during its Tuesday meeting on how the placement of officers in elementary schools, which started in January, has worked out so far.

Darnell said the deputies collaborate with school staff to help children who have experienced trauma and can provide support for children at the elementary, middle and high school level.

Darnell recalled one deputy who has been working closely with school personnel to provide extra support for a child who witnessed a parent's murder at an early age and has been acting out.

But law enforcement officials aren't a source of support only for students who have witnessed a crime, but for any student having a tough day. Darnell spoke of a deputy who noticed a crying little boy and asked him what was wrong. The student said he missed his mommy.

The deputy, Darnell said, replied, "I miss my mommy too." Then he walked him to class.

Extending a law enforcement presence from middle and high schools to elementary schools required personnel changes for both GPD and the Sheriff's Office.

Darnell said she wouldn't need additional money from the county to keep the 12 deputies she currently has in local elementary schools there for at least the next year. She was able to find room in her budget by redirecting the six-deputy community-oriented policing unit from neighborhoods to elementary schools and disbanding a traffic unit in order to send its six deputies to the schools as well.

Jones pulled four police officers off the road and posted them at elementary schools within the Gainesville city limits instead. He said the sacrifice was worth it to provide better protection for students. "This is our most vulnerable population," he said.

Darnell can budget for the deputies right now, but additional funding is always welcome. She doesn't expect it to come from the in-session Florida Legislature, but she said she is hopeful federal grants supporting this kind of service will arise in the near future.

Boyd said the School Board plans to contribute money to support GPD and the Sheriff's Office in this endeavor if and when it becomes available.

"They came to our aid when this tragedy unfolded," Boyd said of the agencies. "I didn't have to ask for a thing."

Commissioner Mike Byerly said he was encouraged to hear the officers and deputies are in the schools not to be armed guards, but true resource officers. Re-evaluating the service in a few years could help determine if it should be a long-term strategy, he said, or if more funding is needed.

Now that law enforcement officials are posted at local elementary schools, Darnell said controlling on-campus access is the next security challenge that needs to be addressed. Criminal offenders can get onto school grounds fairly easily in some places, which is something the Sheriff's Office and the schools plan to change, she said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or

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