FLEMING ISLAND – One week before the one-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, last Valentine’s Day, the Clay County School Board voted to create and staff its own police department.
On Feb. 14 last year, 14 students and three staff members were killed, and another 17 wounded, in the shooting that prompted Florida lawmakers to sign into action a mandate that required every school district to man all schools with either resource officers or safety officers, or a mixture of the two.
Clay County District Schools became one of the first in the state to meet the mandate and they did so with Clay County Sheriff's Office resource officers, interlocal department officers and trained safety officers. On Thursday, Feb. 7, the school board voted to create its own police department.
“How about if I move for Plan B and put in the elimination of the [school safety officers] by the end of 2019-2020 school year?” School board member Janice Kerekes asked. “This gives us a whole year to transition and transition those [school safety officers] that want to stay to go to [school resource officers] and those that retire, go retire, and those that are left, they can find another position moving forward but not continue as a [school safety officer], across the board, and this gives us a year to transition.”
This would morph into the motion that the school board passed with a 4-1 vote, with school board member Ashley Gilhousen dissenting. Gilhousen stated before the vote that she would be more comfortable with a different option. She later posted on Facebook and explained that she does not believe ending the contracts with CCSO is the right call for Clay County children.
“To be clear, this decision by the Board passed with a 4-1 vote,” Gilhousen’s Facebook post reads. “I was that one dissenting vote, If you, like me, believe that dissolving our partnership with the CCSO is not the best safety measure for our children, then call and email your School Board and Superintendent to voice your concerns.”
Prior to the motion, over an hour and a half of discussion took place on this one agenda item.
The idea massaged by Kerekes was an idea that Clay County School District Superintendent Addison Davis said was a respectful move forward. After all, developing a police force and utilizing only school resource officers would see the jobs of school safety officers eliminated.
“That would be a respectful way to do the work and to really have a conversation,” Davis said. “It would also be a way to see if we could train more individuals to transition into positions.”
In a recent school board workshop, Davis presented the board a number of options for handling school safety during the 2019-20 school year. Each option had a stipulation that would see the district file the necessary paperwork with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to create its own law enforcement agency.
“Every option does lend to hire a police chief and to start to file the paperwork [to create a law enforcement agency] just in case there ever arises a need to do so,” Davis said.
The option selected by the board during the Feb. 7 meeting, Option B, sees the board maintain and extend current agreements with the Green Cove Springs and Orange Park Police Departments. Right now, officers from GCSPD and OPPD serve as resource officers in Charles E. Bennett Elementary and Green Cove Springs Junior High, and Grove Park Elementary, Orange Park Elementary and Orange Park Junior High School, respectively.
This option also allows the agreement with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office expire. Under terms of the current CCSO agreement, the school district pays $1.9 million for 19 School Resource Officers, the equivalent of $100,000 per officer.
In CCSO’s place, the school board will create and staff a police department with a police chief, a lieutenant, a training lieutenant, four sergeants, 36 police officers, three relief officers and one detective. The district would also need to purchase vehicles, badges, weapons, uniforms and more.
This will cost the district roughly $6.1 million in year one and roughly $4.2 million in year two. The decrease in costs occurs because initial capital costs aren’t present in the cost for year two. During the workshop, school board chairwoman Carol Studdard said the recent millage increase makes these costs affordable.
“We got the millage passed,” Studdard said. “What do our [constituents] expect us to do? They want, and we want, to see that money put an officer in every school.”
While Clay County Sheriff Daryl Daniels was present during the meeting, he chose not to speak on the subject. He did, however, take to Facebook the following afternoon to say that he did not believe the school board put much thought into the decision.
“I don’t think the Clay County School Board thought this through,” Daniels’ post reads. “There’s an investigative side to law enforcement that they’re not thinking about. The jurisdiction will belong to the school board police department, with coverage being needed 24 hours a day.”
In the Facebook post, Daniels said he would have liked to speak during the meeting but was never called upon. During each meeting, the public is allowed to speak during designated sections and Daniels did not take to the mic to speak during this section of the meeting.
Despite his thoughts on the decision, in the same social media post, he said CCSO won’t allow the school board to fail.
“That said, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office won’t let the school board fail, because allowing them to fail will be all of us failing our children,” the post reads. “We will do anything we can to help. We will continue to be here for the school board and especially for our community, as we are every day.”