A school district police department? Hernando says no

Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis spoke out this week against the proposal.
A Hernando County Sheriff's deputy talks to students in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. Earlier this month, the school district put forward a proposal to move away from a contract with the Sheriff and establish its own police force. On Tuesday, it announced it would drop that idea.
A Hernando County Sheriff's deputy talks to students in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. Earlier this month, the school district put forward a proposal to move away from a contract with the Sheriff and establish its own police force. On Tuesday, it announced it would drop that idea.
Published October 15

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School District has nixed a proposal to establish its own police department, it said Tuesday, just two weeks after it announced the idea.

The School Board was set to vote on the proposal next week. It would have ended a contract with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to deploy its deputies as school resource officers. In a heated conversation about the idea last week, two board members indicated support for the department, with one member opposed and two undecided.

“I greatly appreciate both the support and concerns expressed by community members for the district to establish its own police department,” Superintendent John Stratton said in a statement the district released Tuesday morning. “After weighing all the options, I feel the timing isn’t right for such a move.”

The contract with the Sheriff’s Office will continue, Stratton added, which will let the district focus on other priorities, including pushing for higher impact fees on new construction to help it keep up with growth.

School Board chairwoman Susan Duval, who backed the proposal, said she was “supportive of the superintendent and the decision he has made.”

District officials had touted projections that they could hire more officers for the same amount they now pay for Sheriff’s deputies. And they said a district-run police department could have an even sharper focus on school security, and be trained more extensively on how to work with and understand children.

But the proposal sparked backlash from some parents, who expressed outrage on social media. Some worried about transparency, though the police department would have been a public agency like the Sheriff’s Office. Others lamented the prospect of losing their children’s current resource deputies or said they didn’t trust school administrators to oversee law enforcement.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis initially pledged to support the school district, whatever it decided. But on Monday, he told the Tampa Bay Times that he opposed the idea.

Nienhuis said he was blindsided when Stratton told him about the plan shortly before it was publicly announced and said the district was moving too fast. School officials have repeatedly praised the work of school resource deputies and said the proposal had nothing to do with the Sheriff’s Office’s performance, but Nienhuis said it drove a wedge between the two agencies.

“Our relationship changed, regardless of what happens in the future,” he said in an interview that took place before the district announced it would drop the idea.

Mike Maurer, the Sheriff’s chief deputy, put it more succinctly: “I feel like I got cheated on by my wife.”

On Tuesday, Nienhuis said he was pleased with Stratton’s decision to drop the proposal. Jimmy Lodato, the school board member who opposed the proposal and praised Stratton for nixing it, said he believed the school district and Sheriff’s Office could patch things up.

“I feel that what it is is everybody’s feelings were hurt,” he said. “It was a slap in the face, there’s no doubt about it. But I believe we can repair the damage.”

The plan also drew vocal criticism from Hernando County Commission chairman Jeff Holcomb. A majority of county commissioners, Holcomb among them, have been supporters of the Sheriff and recently approved a budget increase for him in an otherwise tight budgetary year.

Nienhuis, Maurer and others on the Sheriff’s staff took aim at the project’s proposed budget, which they said underestimated the costs of some items and designated some “start-up expenses” that would be recurring costs. They also suggested that a school police department would have trouble finding experienced officers.

But school police chiefs in Sarasota and Clay counties, which district officials pointed to as success stories, said last week that they’d had a surprisingly easy time recruiting. Each said they’d drawn interest from retired law enforcement and military professionals, and that they staffed their departments with officers who have, on average, two decades of experience.

Chiefs in those districts also said the new departments allowed them to give officers more specialized training and made them better prepared to work with students.

Sarasota and Clay are among 18 Florida school districts that have full or partial district police departments. Andrea Messina, president of the Florida School Boards Association, said districts continue to weigh and reconsider their options to keep schools secure and to abide by laws put in place after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“We’ll continue to see an analysis, a review of what’s working best and how (we can) continue to serve the needs of the community,” she said. “I think we’ll see more districts considering that possibility.”

This doesn’t mean the end of discussions on security in Hernando County schools, though. The School Board has discussed in recent months adding so-called school guardians and could take up that issue next. School guardians are district employees who are armed and trained in school security, but are not sworn law enforcement officers and do not have arrest powers. The district could add them to its existing cohort of school resource officers.

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