Tension over police presence in schools is nothing new, but recent protests against police violence across the United States spurred school districts to reconsider police presence on campuses.
In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed at the hands of police, the local school district terminated its contract with the police department, which provided school resource officers (SROs) on campuses.
Some studies show Black children are more likely to be arrested on campus and face more negative consequences, and small incidents that used to be handled by school staff now result in criminal records due to police on campus.
But in Charlotte County, many of the problems that plague school districts across the U.S. aren’t brought up by parents or students as they are in other districts across the U.S.
“That trust is there and (students) are comfortable with law enforcement,” said Deputy Joella Moore, a Charlotte County SRO. “When it comes down to it, our kids love their SROs because we’re there all the time. We hug them, we’re there when they’re crying, when they’re sad, when they’re happy, going to their awards, if they need shoes, making sure they have shoes, making sure they have lunch.”
SROs, generally, are sworn law enforcement officers who are affiliated with a police department or public safety agency, and trained to work in schools.
Charlotte County Public Schools contract with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office and the Punta Gorda Police Department. At least one officer is always present on school grounds when school is in session, and two are present on campus at local high schools. There are 27 SROs in Charlotte County’s 17 public schools.
The school district spent $1,586,700 on its contract with CCSO in the 2019-2020 school year, a $272,599 increase from the year prior.
Every school day, Charlotte County SROs arrive on campuses before the school day starts to greet students and patrol parking lots.
“When people think about law enforcement, they just see the interaction — taking people to jail,” Moore said. “But there’s this whole concept that you have to protect and serve the community. We’re a community … and the school is just another community component. We are a resource to those families.”
All CCSO SROs were once road patrol deputies, and the transition isn’t as hard as you may think, Moore said.
“The only exception is kids like to hug,” she said. “Building that trust is the same whether it’s here or whether it’s out on the streets.”
SROs go through the same law enforcement training as other deputies, and additionally must become Crisis Intervention Training certified, which includes 40 hours of specialized mental health training. They also must complete SRO Basic, a 40-hour course from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In addition to patrolling for safety and making arrests when crimes occur, SROs teach specialty classes.
“We’re not just security guards in the schools, or just police officers patrolling, we’re a resource,” said Sgt. Mike Marsh, of CCSO’s Juvenile Division. “There are mandatory things that have to be taught to the kids like bullying, human trafficking, and the active assailant stuff … It (runs the gamut) from what you think a kindergarten kid would need to know, such as touching a hot stove, all the way up to high school kids with texting and internet safety.”
CCSO deputies teach more than 50 different topics including bicycle safety, bullying, human trafficking and stranger danger.
“You’re not going to show a video on how to dial 911 to a fifth grader; they get very targeted, age appropriate,” Moore said. “But a 5-year-old, believe it or not, they need to know how to call 911, because not everybody comes from that environment where they’re taught that.”
SROs are often the centerpiece of the national debate over school safety.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the federal STOP School Violence Act in 2018, which authorized $50 million annually for school safety through 2028. Another $25 million was allotted to “harden” schools against potential shooters — including with armed guards. The bill doesn’t specifically address arming teachers, but it also doesn’t bar school districts from using federal funds to do so.
The same year, police were mandated to be present in Florida schools by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, adopted three weeks after the school shooting there in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018.
Through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, the Florida Department of Education established the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program; a highly controversial program that essentially allowed armed civilian teachers and volunteers in schools.
The Charlotte County school district does not participate in nor support the guardian program, the district said.
But even in Florida, where energy was focused on school safety after the Parkland gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle and killed 17 people, public sentiment shifted in the wake of a renewed focus on racial justice following George Floyd’s death.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, on the heels of Black Lives Matter’s call to defund police departments, recommended the state of Florida do away with school resource officers and police on school campuses.
The ACLU’s report, “The Cost of School Policing,” outlines negative consequences of police on campus including higher rates of school arrests.
“Undoubtedly, School Resource Officers play a large role in the day-to-day functions within the school day. Not only does the safety and protection of teachers and students fall on them, but they pride themselves on building relationships with the youth of Charlotte County,” Charlotte County Bill Prummell said in a statement. “This relationship promotes open communications and diversifies student perception of the typical cop. Ultimately, it’s a method of community policing and crime prevention geared towards our youth.”
The most common charge for a school arrest in Florida in the 2018-2019 school year was battery/assault, with 1,432 arrests, according to data from the Department of Juvenile Justice. The second-most common charge was drug-related felonies.
In Charlotte County, there were 68 school arrests in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the DJJ. The most common was a felony drug charge, at 16 arrests.
“If it’s a felony amount, if it’s a felony drug, they’re going to jail,” Moore said. “They have to, there’s no option.”
There were 11 misdemeanor drug arrests, and authorities can opt for a civil citation program.
The third-most common arrest in Charlotte schools is for aggravated assault/ battery, with 10 arrests in the 2018-2019 school year.
Moore once arrested a 12-year-old for battery on a teacher.
“She did not like me. She called me every little name there was,” Moore said. “She was spiraling out of control and I was watching her and she was out of control.”
Moore called DJJ and asked for the girl’s community service hours to be assigned with herself.
The two became very close. The girl devoted much of her time to volunteering after she completed her mandated community service hours.
But in high school, the girl got into trouble again. Her mother called Moore because the girl was enrolled in summer school, but wouldn’t go.
“I drug her to her summer school while she was in her pajamas. She went and I sat with her,” Moore said. “Then I brought her home and she did her homework in my house. And that’s how we did that two weeks and she graduated.”
After graduation, the girl joined the Army, and Moore was there at her boot camp graduation.
Later in her military service, Moore drove the girl’s mother and her own son to North Carolina to watch the girl, now a woman, perform her final jump out of an airplane and receive her red beret and get her wings.
Now, the woman is stationed in Afghanistan and Moore sends care packages.
“She’s part of my family; it’s that strong of a bond,” Moore said. “That saying about ‘it takes a village to raise a kid.’ It does. And when that village works together, you have great results.”
“Being an SRO, it’s a lot of different hats. You’re their police officer, you’re their parent, sometimes you’re their teacher, you’re their counselor, you’re their friend, you’re their disciplinarian.”