Policing meetings on School Board agenda

Published May 21, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - There could be a new, armed member of the audience at regular Hernando County School Board meetings.

Board members have been discussing the possibility of hiring an off-duty police officer to help ensure that meetings stay civil and safe.

Superintendent Wendy Tellone said staff members have expressed concern over their safety at past meetings, and suggested the possibility of an increased threat since the Virginia Tech shootings.

District staff sit at the back of the board room and sometimes face irate citizens as they're leaving controversial meetings, she said.

"I'd like us to seriously consider it in some way, shape or form," said board member Dianne Bonfield at a Tuesday workshop. "The times we live in necessitate these things."

Other members have reacted with more skepticism.

"At this point in time, I don't think it's necessary," said Chairman Pat Fagan when the idea was first broached on May 1. "I just don't think we need someone here at every board meeting to secure the premises."

Sandra Nicholson agreed. "We can always close down the meeting and call someone."

In the past, board members have sometimes called for a police presence during meetings on controversial topics like school boundary rezoning, said board member Jim Malcolm.

He said the officers could have an "intimidating presence" and discourage people from speaking.

Tellone said the officer could attend the meeting in plainclothes if the board chose. The cost would be around $1,600 for the whole year, she said.

Board member John Sweeney has also expressed skepticism over the plan, but said he would keep an open mind.

"As of this point I feel pretty darn safe, but I'm interested in hearing more information," he said.

District security director Barry Crowley is scheduled to present more information on the subject during a workshop session at 2 p.m. June 5.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.