Additional SRO training the focus of Fla. agencies after Uvalde

“This SRO will not wait at all — no hesitation, no asking for permission to go in — to address an active shooter or any intruder on a school campus,” Sheriff Marcos López said


By Cristóbal Reyes
Orlando Sentinel

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — Law enforcement and school authorities across Florida had a busy summer, as discussions continue in the aftermath of the May shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where officers stood by as 19 students and two teachers were killed.

Part of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office’s response was to up the intensity of active shooter training for school resource deputies. In sessions totaling an extra 40 training hours, the deputies were trained to pursue campus shooters without delay while relying for direction on the agency’s real-time crime center, which recently gained access to school surveillance feeds.

Sheriff Marcos R. López talks to the media during a tour of the new Real-Time Crime Center, on Wednesday, September 22, 2021.
Sheriff Marcos R. López talks to the media during a tour of the new Real-Time Crime Center, on Wednesday, September 22, 2021. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)

Sheriff Marcos López said his deputies are also implementing an anti-bullying initiative at the county’s elementary schools while coordinating with mental health professionals to address problematic behavior before it escalates.

“If anything I can do possible to help minimize or eliminate a potential future active shooter by implementing some of these [initiatives] ... it’s something that I’m trying,” López said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, moments after he returned from East Lake Elementary School, where he hosted an anti-bullying assembly.

SROs at other local agencies also brushed up on best practices over the summer, including a school safety conference at Valencia College put on earlier this month by the National Threat Assessment Center to discuss ways to prevent future attacks.

But school safety experts warn against what’s known as the “Columbine effect,” often used to describe new security measures following school shootings that can lead to harsher enforcement of student behavior, disproportionately affecting students of color.

They note school shootings are relatively rare and, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report released Wednesday, youth arrests for violent crimes fell 56% in the last 10 years.

“One has to think about disparity and inequality across very different types of demographics, and that has to be at the center of what we think about in terms of ensuring safety and wellbeing for all students,” said Anthony Peguero, sociology and criminology professor at Arizona State University.

‘No hesitation’

Video shown at a press conference ahead of the beginning of the school year offered a glimpse into what the summer’s active shooter training looked like, with roleplaying scenarios involving a suspect being apprehended while others resulted in them being shot by deputies.

The trainees were guided through the halls by analysts of the real-time crime center, which López aims to later equip with weapons recognition software.

Agency policy has allowed SROs to confront school shooters since 2019, following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland a year before, where a deputy was accused of hiding instead of confronting the gunman. After the shooting in Uvalde, López said additional training was needed to prepare for the real thing.

“This SRO will not wait at all — no hesitation, no asking for permission to go in — to address an active shooter or any intruder on a school campus,” he said.

While SROs statewide use the summertime to brush up on training at their agencies and through the Florida Association of School Resource Officers, this year’s conference held by the Secret Service, which runs the National Threat Assessment Center, pointed to commonalities between different cases that school officials should look out for.

That includes potential perpetrators having previous contact with law enforcement and grievances with classmates, the latter being the most common motive for shootings, according to a Secret Service report, with the caveat that there is no profile for a student attacker.

“Even though there’s a victim-offender overlap, just because you were victimized doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be an offender,” Peguero, the ASU professor, said. “These shootings are very rare incidences, but when we think about aggression, that’s more of a common response.”

Still, the agency encourages communities to identify warning signs and intervene before the behavior escalates, also noting that “simply removing a student from the school, without appropriate supports, may not necessarily remove the risk of harm they pose to themselves or others.”

“It might end up being nothing, but... we want to try to spot these behaviors before it ever gets to the point where a threat assessment is necessary,” said Rebekah Morris, a FASRO regional director and a Kissimmee Police Department SRO who attended the conference.

SROs part of ‘complicated puzzle’

On the first week of school, hundreds of East Lake Elementary students gathered in the cafeteria for an assembly with their SRO, where they were presented a slideshow about bullying and how to combat it. This week, a similar presentation took place at Harmony Community School.

López calls the assemblies the “anti-bullying school of the week,” part of his strategy finalized last school year to teach children from an early age about bullying and destigmatize reporting concerning behavior to adults.

“’Snitches get stitches,’ that’s a prison term. We’re going away from that,” López said.

Peguero, the ASU professor, said those initiatives are a start, but campus safety involves more than policing, especially in Florida where an armed presence became a must-have at public schools following the Parkland shooting.

School safety also comes down the SRO’s broader role in campus culture — how they interact with students beyond their law enforcement role and their relationships with on-campus resources catering to the needs of youth on and off campus.

SROs, Peguero said, are “one piece of a very complicated puzzle.”

[RELATED: What campus police can learn from the Uvalde tragedy]

Osceola faced a heated debate over the role of SROs in January 2021, when Deputy Ethan Fournier slammed a 16-year-old Liberty High School student while attempting to break up a fight. Fournier was cleared of any charges or internal discipline in the incident, but López said SROs are now trained to focus more on “verbal judo” to prevent similar altercations.

The incident led to a school district-led task force that laid the groundwork for a new contract with agencies later that year that made school officials responsible for informing staff on when to involve an SRO, as well as encouraging SROs to teach “security and safety topics” as requested.

“SROs becoming part of the school campus is the new reality, and how we make them a part of the fabric of the educational institution is what’s key — that they’re not just a security component, but they’re actually there to work with the students,” said Julius Meléndez, who convened the SRO Citizens Safety Task Force.

But Osceola County has a well-documented reputation for arresting students for first-time misdemeanors while underutilizing legal alternatives like civil citations.

Last school year, 98% of such encounters countywide resulted in arrest, with the Sheriff’s Office only issuing citations 1% of the time, according to Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data. Their counterparts at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office issued civil citations in 68% of incidents.

Arrests are disproportionately made against Black students, who make up 14% of the school district but 39% of those taken into custody.

After the Liberty High School incident, López told the Sentinel he is trying to change how SROs interact with students. The Sheriff’s Office recently created its own Police Athletic League, which López hopes to use to divert youth from prosecution.

“We’re reinforcing more talking to the children, more mental health awareness, and we’re also working to identifying some of the children who are having these issues to try and go with a one-on-one with them,” he said.

The school district is also playing its role. Along with hotlines and online reporting sites monitored by the district, Superintendent Debra Pace told reporters it has added seven mental health workers to its ranks to help identify and address students exhibiting problematic behavior.

“That is an ongoing system of monitoring, collaboration and then proactive response if we think there is a concern,” Pace said.

One year after task force

Though many of the task force’s more ambitious recommendations, like expanding the use of civil citations, were relegated to a nonbinding resolution, Meléndez said he’s pleased with the progress made since then.

“One of the best outcomes that came out of that is that there’s a greater sense of awareness of the SROs on campus,” he said. “Each school has implemented it differently, but there are some schools where the SRO does the morning announcements once a week.”

Other parts of the resolution, like the commitment to purchasing body cameras, are coming to fruition. López said he is using funds from the previous year’s budget to cover cameras for SROs stationed in high schools, a reversal from his stance that the cameras weren’t needed.

The sheriff expects to equip deputies at elementary and middle school campuses with the cameras by the end of the 2023 fiscal year, with his agency being the final holdout in purchasing the cameras for its on-campus officers.

St. Cloud long had them for its SROs while Kissimmee police Chief Jeff O’Dell bought them ahead of last school year following months of task force discussions.

Moving forward, Meléndez said he would like to see the school district create its own police force, which was also considered by the task force’s 43-page report but never formally adopted as a recommendation.

Though several Florida school districts and others across the U.S. have their own police departments providing security, Peguero said it’s a relatively recent phenomenon and research is scant on whether having one improves student relations with law enforcement.

“There’s not enough evidence to say one way or the other,” he said. “It’s only until recently that there’s some research that’s starting to investigate these things.”

Still, Meléndez argues having officers focused solely on school security would establish a standardized, permanent presence on campuses that’s currently lacking. Many of Osceola’s charter schools, for instance, had to contract private armed guardians in lieu of deputy sheriffs due to limited staffing.

“The issue with the current SRO setup is they’re kind of an outside contractor versus something in-house,” Meléndez said. “We need to fully absorb them and make them part of the team. And not just a threat assessment team, but also be a part of the campus.”

©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Visit orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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