TARPON SPRINGS – When Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, mandating every school in the state have a trained school resource officer or armed security officer in place by the start of the 2018-19 school year, on March 9, many Pinellas County municipalities were left scrambling to come up with ways to come into compliance with the new law.
At the time, Pinellas Sherriff Bob Gualtieri reported 101 new school resource officers would be needed – 81 for elementary schools, most of which did not have SROs, and 18 for charter schools. Ten more offic-ers would be needed at high schools to meet the one officer per 1,500-student guideline, and an addition-al 31 relief SROs, plus 10 supervisors, were needed to cover assigned officers who are sick or on vacation.
Faced with those numbers and the resulting cost, Gualtieri said the Pinellas School District and its Pi-nellas Schools Police should bear the cost of increased on-campus security.
In Tarpon Springs, the only North Pinellas city that still has a police department, SROs from the municipal department were stationed at the high school and middle school, and the department has had one SRO rotating between the city’s three public elementary schools for more than two decades. This set-up was proposed by former Police Chief Mark LeCouris, who is now the city manager, in the 1990s.
“The original intent was to provide a role model for kids early on, to catch them in elementary school,” LeCouris, who joined the force in 1978 and was chief from 1993 until 2009, said. “We believed back then there were two modes for SROs—a security officer, and a positive role model, like a teacher. That’s why I got into law enforcement, to work with kids. So, it was right in line with what I was doing.”
LeCouris explained that while no outside funding was available for such a program at the time, the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners agreed to fund one SRO to rotate between the three elementary schools. “I knew eventually we were going to go with it in full, with partial or no funding,” LeCouris said. “But we knew a long time ago not only we needed to be in the high school and in the middle school, but we needed to be in the elementary schools as mentors, as role models, and that’s been our philosophy.”
Tarpon Springs’ early embrace of having SROs work the elementary schools made a big difference when it came time to comply with the new state mandate, according to the current Tarpon police chief, Robert Kochen.
“From a logistics point of view, it was easier for us to implement it,” he said. “Because we already had one SRO for the three elementary schools, paid for on our own dime, we only had to hire two new officers.” Kochen noted the City Commission approved a three-year contract with the Pinellas School Board in May, which calls for two SROs at Tarpon Springs High School and one each at Tarpon Springs Middle School, Tarpon Springs Fundamental, Tarpon Springs Elementary and Sunset Hills Elementary. The school board agreed to pay $58,000, or roughly 64 percent, of the officers’ salaries, for the length of the agreement, and the city wasted no time interviewing, hiring and training two new officers that will work the streets while experienced department vets rotated into the department’s SRO unit.
“We now have six SROs — two at the high school, one at the middle school and one at each of the three elementary schools — overseen by a sergeant and a major of administration, trained and ready to go when schools opens on Aug. 13,” Kochen said.
When asked how he felt other jurisdictions have handled the new SRO mandate, the chief was quick to state he won’t judge how other communities and law enforcement agencies have chosen to handle the implementation of the new law.
“I’m not in a position to speak for anyone else,” he said. “It’s a big task, a really large undertaking, and I believe the county has a lot of schools to cover, and each one has a way that’s right for them.”
He added: “This was what’s right for us. It doesn’t mean other methods are wrong. We are all working together to figure out ways to come into compliance with the law.”
Student safety has long been a priority of city officials, Kochen stressed, citing the early adoption of the SRO program.
“Student safety is key, and security is definitely paramount,” he said. “We’re committed to providing highly trained, armed school resource officers at each of our public schools, because it’s what we wanted to do for our city.”
Mayor Chris Alahouzos echoed the chief’s thoughts.
“We’ve always believed in providing safety and service in our schools. We always had officers in the middle schools and the elementary schools, even when it wasn’t required,” Alahouzos said. “I cannot speak for other cities, but in Tarpon Springs, it’s very important to provide safety and protection for our students. It’s our top priority. The safety of our students is the future of our city and our country. It’s not something you can ignore. I’d rather cut (funding) from something else and provide for the safety of our students, and we all agree on that here in Tarpon Springs.”