- A state requirement mandates police or guardian presence at every Florida public school
- Duval Schools Police Department doesn’t have enough members to guard every district elementary school
- JSO officers are filling in the holes for now, but it’s not a long term solution
- Duval Schools first tried hiring guardians, but now are pivoting, adding 20 higher paid safety officer positions
Across town, vans wrapped with information about joining the Duval Schools Police Department drive around.
It’s part of a months-long effort to recruit, train and hire 20 new school safety officers to be placed in elementary schools across Jacksonville by August.
The new officer recruits will help fill voids from a failed 2018 plan to hire more than 100 armed school safety assistants, along with some departures after recent controversies.
In 2018 the school district aimed to hire armed safety assistants to stand post at all 103 of the district’s elementary schools. School safety assistants, also known as guardians, do not have the same jurisdiction as police officers or higher-ranking school safety officers. They are paid $12.90 per hour during the 10-month school year in Duval County and receive significantly less training than school safety officers or police officers.
Because of a combination of factors — including how rigorous that training can be in exchange for a low hourly pay rate — Superintendent Diana Greene said the district has struggled to fill vacant assistant positions, forcing sheriff’s officers to supplement. Last school year, 63 sheriffs officers worked in elementary schools to fill Duval Schools Police Department holes.
Wayne Clark, interim chief of Duval Schools Police, said the role is desirable for sheriff’s officers because “you walk in as a superhero” to campuses full of young kids enamored by the uniform and shiny badge.”
But the Sheriff’s Office needs its officers for other duties.
Sheriff Mike Williams said the agency provides a total of 100 officers per day to supplement Duval Schools vacancies.
“At this point, we need those officers to address the operational concerns we have for city-wide efforts,” Williams said.
62 schools are without presence from Duval Schools Police
Following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, the Florida Department of Education began requiring at least one school safety officer or armed assistant at every public school.
To date, the district has 100 school safety assistants on staff. Thirty-eight school safety assistants are currently placed at district elementary schools. But that leaves 62 schools without Duval Schools Police presence. So the Sheriff’s Office fills in the blanks to comply with the state requirement.
Now, the goal is to replace them with Duval School Police recruits — including 20 newly opened school safety officer positions. School safety officers receive significantly more training than safety assistants, comparable to a sworn sheriff’s officer, though not as many hours. They also get paid more and require more equipment including a laptop and vehicle.
Currently, school safety officers are stationed at middle and high schools across Duval County Schools. But state law requires at least assistant-level guardians on elementary school campuses.
The cost last school year to replace 63 sheriff’s officers with 63 of the less-paid school safety assistants would have been about $2 million, according to district projections. But that wasn’t achievable. Instead, the cost for 63 sheriff’s officers was about $4.2 million.
If the school police department gets to a point where it can hire 63 School Safety Officers, it will cost about $5.7 million — including salaries, benefits, vehicles and other equipment. That’s more than the cost to have 63 sheriff’s officers, but with the added benefit of sustainability within the agency.
Tough training program with low pay brought few applicants for school safety assistants
At a School Board workshop meeting earlier this year, board members noted the irony — how they thought hiring dozens of school safety assistants instead of officers would be a great tactic to fill elementary school slots and save money.
“We thought they would be jumping at the opportunity,” Warren Jones said, “that it was a good compromise over school safety officers.”
Board member Lori Hershey added that they thought people would be “coming out of the woodwork to apply.”
But Greene said the combination of a rigorous training program and evaluation — albeit significantly less training than what a full-blown police officer would go through — plus a low pay rate has made securing school safety assistants a slow, largely unsuccessful process.
According to the school district, school safety assistant trainees have to go through the following at minimum:
- 132-hour comprehensive firearms safety proficiency training
- 80 hours of firearms training
- 16 hours of precision pistol instruction
- 8 hours of discretionary simulated shooting instruction
- 8 hours of defensive tactics instruction
- 8 hours of active shooter/assailant scenario instruction
- 12 hours of legal issues instruction
- Annual ongoing trainings in weapons inspection and firearm qualifications
- A psychological evaluation
- 12 hours of diversity training
“We have a terrible failure rate,” Greene said of assistant recruits going through the required trainings and background checks. “[And] once we’re getting the safety assistants through the program — and then even if they get through the program — if you look at what we pay safety assistants, you could literally go work at Starbucks and make more money than being a safety assistant in our school. It’s still very challenging.”
The likelihood of Duval Schools filling 63 positions with lower-ranking safety assistants alone could take years, according to Greene.
In 2020 district officials say the safety assistant training dropout rate was “strong.” In October 2020 three out of seven potential assistants passed the required training.
This past school year, three out of three potential safety assistants passed the required training and evaluations required to proceed with the position — a 100 percent success rate. By April, two out of two recruits passed. Still, Greene said at the rate the district is hiring, it could take the district about 25 years to fill 63 positions with safety assistants.
That’s why the district is pivoting, by opening the 20 slots for officers. Previously the district didn’t plan to hire school safety officers for elementary schools.
According to the district, the goal is to hire the 20 new officers by Aug. 3 — the first day of school.
According to the school district’s recruiting website, there are both 10 and 12-month open officer positions paying between $18.27-$24.23 per hour. Officers would receive 770 hours of training comparable to a sheriff’s officer’s 1,000 hours.
On June 14 at a press conference about next school year, Greene told The Times-Union that recruiting and hiring efforts were on track and that she’s optimistic.
“We have now wrapped vans that are out in the community and we’re continuing to work with JSO giving us leads to individuals who have retired,” Greene said. “I think we are going to meet our goal of 20 school safety officers by August.”
Two school safety officers have been hired so far
As of Thursday, the district confirmed two of the 20 open officer positions had been filled and other prospects are currently going through screening and evaluation. From there they may or may not be hired.
“School Police leadership are continuing to ramp up recruitment efforts,” spokeswoman Laureen Ricks said. “This includes increased marketing efforts on social media, attending regional job fairs, and scheduled presentations at area police academies to speak with police recruits.”
Clark confirmed that the Sheriff’s Office is working with the Schools Police Department to fill vacant positions, encouraging retired officers to apply. Currently about 60 percent of the department is comprised of prior sheriff’s officers, some lured by the idea of having summers off.
He added that the district police department is able to have flexibility on some requirements that could hold a potential Sheriff’s Office recruit from applying, like having a low credit score.
“We’re loosening some of those standards,” he said.
Duval Schools Police still recovering from critical grand jury report
The hiring efforts also come on the heels of a grand jury report that largely criticized Duval Schools Police Department operations, accusing the agency of “outright fraud” and underreporting incident crime numbers.
Critics said the grand jury report unfairly placed emphasis on reporting misdemeanors instead of considering restorative justice and other alternative programs that could help dismantle school-to-prison pipelines.
A month after the report’s release, Schools Police Department Executive Director Micheal Edwards announced his immediate resignation.
A public-records request revealed that at least five additional employees resigned between December and January including two school safety officers, two school safety assistants and one police emergency communications officer. It’s unclear if any of the resignations were related to the grand jury report or related to wrongdoing. As of April, Clark said the department had a total of 86 vacancies.
The school district announced Tuesday that retired sheriff’s officer Gregory Burton is likely to take the role of police chief, pending School Board approval in July. Clark would transition out of the school police force by September.
The Schools Police Department is one of fewer than 20 school district-run police agencies in Florida.