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A Times Editorial

Funding needed to add school resource officers

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000

Lake Myrtle Elementary School in Land O' Lakes, the only A-rated school in Pasco County, according to state standards, benefits from the part-time presence of a sheriff's deputy on campus.

Lacoochee Elementary does not even though it has nearly four times as many students coming from low-income families, significantly higher absenteeism and a mobility rate double that of Lake Myrtle.

It is an inequity that should be corrected, and can be if the Pasco Sheriff's Office successfully obtains a $500,000 federal grant to expand its school resource officer program. The three-year grant, for which application approval came Tuesday night from the County Commission, would put more deputies in elementary schools under a program that began in the just-concluded school year.

School resource officers are an offshoot of community-oriented policing, a proactive law enforcement technique that introduces officers to children at an early age. Pasco's middle and high schools all have their own officers through the sheriff's department and city police forces, and this past year, three deputies divided their time among nine elementary schools.

The schools were targeted because of the level of poverty, absenteeism, reported crimes, discipline referrals and other factors that indicate a preponderance of at-risk students. Lake Myrtle shared a deputy with Chester Taylor Elementary outside Zephyrhills and Centennial Elementary south of Dade City. Lake Myrtle received the attention, according to Superintendent John Long, because of its size (951 students in the 1998 school year), geography in central Pasco and proximity to Taylor and Centennial, and because it houses programs for emotionally disabled children.

Still, expanding the program to schools that more closely meet the federal criteria should be a priority. Lacoochee is a likely beneficiary if the grant is approved, said Albert Bashaw, Pasco's director of student services.

Additionally, we encourage the police departments in Dade City and Zephyrhills to participate, which could put officers in Pasco, Rodney B. Cox, Woodland and West Zephyrhills elementary schools. A commitment from the Dade City Commission and the Zephyrhills City Council is needed to pickup half the cost of the program after the grant expires. The Pasco School District pays the other half.

Officers in schools, however, should not be construed as a panacea to curbing school violence. As reported Sunday by Times staff writer Tamara Lush, Pasco County high schools staffed by sheriff's deputies had a 22 percent increase in crime over the past year.

Most notably, a student shot dead in the parking lot at Ridgewood High School earlier this year occurred while the deputy was away from the school grounds transporting an inmate to jail. Since then, the Sheriff's Office altered its policy and no longer sends officers off campus during school hours. It was correct to change that procedure and matches the job description on the federal grant application that states officers spend 8.5 hours a day on campus.

Adding resource officers was just one safety procedure put in place in the past school year. The district also required student identification badges for high school students. Long also wants to hire a safety director in the new budget year. Though the district owns some hand-held electronic metal detectors, it wisely has resisted wide use of the devices, which are constitutionally suspect and easy to evade.

The Sheriff's Office also started a hot line for students to report suspicious behavior. It received 11 calls since its inception in January. More significant was the action by fourth-grader Tommy "T.J." Cooner Jr. who in May reported to a teacher that a fifth-grade student had brought a loaded .357-caliber Magnum to West Zephyrhills Elementary School. Cooner's actions are heroic and came a month after students watched a presentation on what to do if they suspect there is a weapon on campus.

Young Cooner is now a role model. If parents and faculty can teach children to follow his example, all Pasco schools will be safer places.

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