SEBRING — The school resource officer at your child’s school Monday may not be the same one there by Christmas break.
That’s OK, said Scott Dressel, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office. They have the same training as a regular SRO, whether they are filling in from patrol or administrative positions. Sheriff Paul Blackman has said, even if he has to patrol hallways, he’ll have deputies at every school.
That’s the mandate from the state, but it’s also Blackman’s goal to enhance safety with deputies at all schools and enhance security methods, despite a tight budget year that has him, county commissioners and municipal councils scraping for funds to cover salaries.
At the last county budget workshop, the county had agreed to Blackman’s $286,525 request for salaries only, while the School Board of Highlands County will pay $70,000 toward the Safe Schools program.
This is contingent on Avon Park honoring its pledge for $100,000 and Lake Placid stepping up with $75,000.
Sebring Police Department supplies its own SROs to Sebring Middle School, Woodlawn Elementary School, the Kindergarten Learning Center, Heartland Christian Academy and St. Catherine’s Catholic School.
In Sebring, the Sheriff’s Office will cover Fred Wild Elementary School, The Academy at Youth Care Lane and Sebring High School, as those schools are in the county.
On Wednesday, Dressel said the Sheriff’s Office is currently four short of having all the new SRO positions filled.
The Sheriff’s Office will go from having eight SROs last school year to 19 this year. Dressel said the program has grown large enough to have its own commander: Lt. Chris Gunter, who will keep his office at the Highlands County School District offices.
Dressel said several deputies have transferred in from other divisions. Others, recruited from the ranks of retired law enforcement, must wait a year from retirement before they can rejoin the Sheriff’s Office — or any other employer who participates in the Florida Retirement System.
By December, when new people can get sworn in, the SRO program will be only one short, Dressel said, but Blackman hopes to have other recruits by then.
“We’ve got it so that, other than one position, we will not have any overtime,” Dressel said.
He also said all SROs take training to learn the intricacies of the position. They are, essentially, going from being a road patrol deputy to being a “beat cop” on foot.
Some notable transfers to the SRO division include Kevin Gentry, brother to the late Deputy William J. Gentry Jr., and Dwayne Council, former Avon Park High School assistant coach who will now patrol that campus.
“He knows a lot of those kids. That’s exactly where he needs to be,” Dressel said of Council. “It’s going to be good having someone like that in that school. Kids he doesn’t know, he probably knows their mom and daddy.”
Many SROs are parents, Dressel said: “It’s a double duty for them. They want it to be safe for their kids, too.”
Right now, there is no prohibition against an SRO serving at the same school as their children, but such situations would not be published, for security reasons.
Levels of security have changed, as have protocols, Dressel said.
As reported by the Highlands News-Sun on Aug. 2, Deputy Superintendent of Schools Andrew Lethbridge said school administrators wanted less confusion with two security levels rather than three.
The two new terms are “Controlled Campus” and “Active Threat Plan.” Dressel said protocols for the Active Threat Plan have been updated since the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14.
“The traditional lock-down approach doesn’t really cover it,” Dressel said. “If kids are outside having (physical education), why take the kids back into the school?”
If students are already outside, and learn the shooter is on the other side of campus, they can just evacuate.
Most shooters, Dressel said, are students who know they can find student targets in a classroom. The old “Run, Hide and Fight” mantra doesn’t hold, he said.
Now it’s “Alert/Avoid, Barricade and Counter,” with students and teachers ready to fight or distract the shooter if he — or she — gets through their barricade.
“It’s a lot more involved than locking the door, turning off the lights and being quiet,” Dressel said. “It’s an evolving strategy.”
Dressel said school lockdowns started in Los Angeles when drive-by gang shootings outside school prompted students to stay inside. That doesn’t work with an active threat on campus.
Also, he said, the new strategies are not linear. Someone may not get a chance to run and hide before encountering the shooter.
They may have to “counter” to offset the shooter long enough to run away.
Dressel said shooters operate on an OODA loop. It’s a military strategy protocol that stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.”
“Anything you can do to break up that cycle, (the shooter) has to start over,” Dressel said.
Dressel said one superintendent out of state suggested arming students with five-gallon buckets of river rocks in each classroom. In March, The Washington Post reported the story about David Helsel, superintendent of a school district in northeast Pennsylvania.
Helsel called it a “last ditch” option that is “better than nothing” or remaining a stationary target.
Dressel said Highlands County hasn’t gone that route. It will have fully trained law enforcement on campus and upgraded school campus security.
That includes more fully functioning cameras on campus, he said, paid for by the half-cent sales tax for school infrastructure.