State task force hears campus security ideas

Officials recommend more police and mental health counselors.

Published May 10, 2007

More cops, more counselors and a sustained societal push to better treat mental illness were among the recommendations offered Wednesday to a state task force considering how to beef up campus security.

"If you think you're seeing mental health issues on college campuses, you need to come back and look in our elementary schools, our middle schools, our high schools and our jails," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger told the group, which met at the Stetson University School of Law in Gulfport.

When an estimated one in five people has mental health issues, Dillinger continued, identifying them is "just not that easy."

Gov. Charlie Crist created the nine-member task force, which is chaired by Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth, in the wake of last month's massacre at Virginia Tech. He ordered it to report back to him by May 24. Wednesday's meeting was one of five the group is holding around the state.

University of South Florida police Chief Thomas Longo told the panel he doesn't have enough officers, and has trouble keeping the ones he does hire.

Law enforcement guidelines suggest USF needs at least 70 officers. Longo said he has 39 of 47 positions filled, and since 2000, the turnover rate for his roughly two dozen patrol officers is 50 percent.

The problem is pay. The starting salary of $35,000 for a USF police officer is about $4,000 less than a starting Hillsborough deputy would make and $7,000 less than a rookie cop in Tampa.

"So recruitment is always difficult (and) retention is critical," Longo said.

USF may also be lacking in mental health counselors. By professional guidelines, USF should have 35 to 44. It has 12.

USF president Judy Genshaft said the school is considering having a mental health counselor in every dorm. She also suggested to the panel that academic accrediting agencies begin rating colleges and universities on campus security, so there are rigorous, uniform standards.

Students "think campus is utopia," she said. "But in actuality, we're a city of 44,000 ... so we have all kinds of issues."