March 27, 2018
The new state mandate requiring safety officers in every Florida school is much easier said than done, especially in Monroe County, where law enforcement agencies are already understaffed and underfunded in terms of compliance with the state’s new demands, Sheriff Rick Ramsay said.
Few people are arguing with the wisdom of placing an officer in every school, be it a sworn resource officer or a school security officer, who would be trained, but would not be a fully sworn officer or deputy, Key West Police Chief Donie Lee said on Monday.
The Key West Police Department currently has sworn school resource officers in Key West High School and Horace O’Bryant School, Lee said, adding that the Monroe County School District pays about 75 percent of their salaries. 
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office currently has SROs on the campuses of five Monroe County Schools: Coral Shores High School, Marathon High School, Plantation Key School, Key Largo School and Sugarloaf School, according to the sheriff’s office website.
The parents of Stanley Switlik Elementary have been lobbying the School Board for a dedicated officer at Switlik for more than four years. The latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida has amplified their efforts. But the sheriff’s office will face the same questions as Key West Police when it comes to the smaller charter schools, such  as Big Pine Academy and Treasure Village Montessori in the Upper Keys.
“The biggest challenge for us, and I believe for Sheriff Rick Ramsay, is finding officers or deputies to place in the schools,” Lee said. “We here in the city are already down eight police officer positions and are now looking at needing another three to put in Gerald Adams, Poinciana and possibly Sigsbee elementary schools.”
Ramsay estimated that since Hurricane Irma, the sheriff’s office is down eight to 10 deputies. 
“I think officers in schools are a good thing, but this mandate could not come at a worse time,” Ramsay said. “All the sheriffs I’ve spoken with agree that is a good idea, but it’s an unfunded mandate that could cost me $1.5 to $2 million to get these deputies hired, trained, uniformed, equipped and in cars at all the schools. And SROs for the bigger schools are a no-brainer, but do we also put a fully loaded deputy or police officer in a charter school with less than 100 students?”
That’s the same question Chief Lee is asking about whether Key West’s two charter schools will require the same officers. Key West Collegiate Academy charter high school has about 80 students and May Sands Montessori School has about 130 students, Lee said.
“There are options for a school safety officer rather than a full school resource officer, and we need to work with the school district to look at all of these options and determine the best use of our limited staffing resources,’ Lee said. “The bigger schools with 500 and 600 students would obviously make sense for a full SRO, but for a school with 80 students, that may not be the best use of resources.”
Key West Police Department is actively recruiting both sworn officers who have been working as a police officer somewhere else, and want to come work in Key West, as well as people interested in attending the police academy to become a police officer. 
“The city and the department sponsor our recruits for the academy,” Lee said. “We pay for their tuition and books, and I think we pay them $2,800 a month while they attend the academy for four and a half months.”
A new police academy is starting in May, with its students graduating in September, a month after the state’s deadline for school officers to be in place.
“But to be honest, I’m not crazy about putting a brand new officer with no experience into a school environment, and at the same time, I’m not thrilled at the thought of forcing another sworn officer to be an SRO,” Lee said, acknowledging that some officers relate better with kids than others. 
“These unfunded mandates from the state are nothing new,” Lee said. “But they do present challenges that we’re all working together to address.”
Monroe County School Board member Mindy Conn understands the challenges law enforcement agencies are facing, particularly in Monroe County. 
“We all struggle with hiring and it’s definitely going to be difficult in terms of both deputies and mental health professionals,’ she said, encouraging all the stakeholders in the county to consider all options that are available, including school safety officers rather than school resource officers. 
“We really need to look at all our options and do what we have to do to keep our kids safe.”
mmiles@keysnews.com