The Clay County School Board recently created its own police to protect each of the county’s public schools. Clay Today staff writer Wesley LeBlanc asked your questions to Superintendent Addison Davis and newly-appointed Police Chief Kenneth Wager Tuesday to talk about the decision and what’s ahead for the district.
Why is this happening?
Davis: Around December, the school board started asking questions and posing questions to me as superintendent of schools to ask me how the millage money will be used to implement safety and security within our schools. I was explicitly asked to go build models for implementation related to school hardening, related to resource officers and related to implementation of the Guardian program, as well as the implementation of local law enforcement agencies in a blended model. I was also asked to build a model for a school police force which is currently done in 15 other school districts in Florida with another 10 in the process.
From my perspective, Addison Davis didn't sit on the sidelines and develop these models in isolation. Every model was explicitly asked for by the school board. So, when I had all of this in January, I took this to a school board workshop to allow the board to ask questions and give me directions. And from there, there were two options. And, as you know...the board landed on the plan to develop a police department and that’s where we’re at now.
Will school crimes be reported publicly?
Wagner: Absolutely. Each case will be investigated and reported just like any other case at any other agency would be. If the case is still active, it’s not going to be revealed as it’s exempt under Chapter 119, but when the case comes to conclusion, then of course, it’s public record and people can make public records requests. When our software and department is up and running, the reporting we do will be identical to that of [CCSO].
What are the policing power jurisdictions?
Wagner: I want to note that we will be following the same law enforcement law as any other agency. Specifically, I want to note Chapter 10006.12 2[Bravo]. Bravo is the sub-section and it specifically talks about [school officers] and their power. They have the power to arrest, power to carry firearms, power to investigate crime whether on or off campus. We’re also going to be working collaboratively with [CCSO] and the other municipalities.
What kind of collaboration with CCSO and other municipalities will there be?
Davis: [CCSO] does a beautiful job, as does the Orange Park Police Department and the Green Cove Springs Police Department, and as we move forward, we will make certain that we continue the great professional relationships we have with all of these entities because we’re all going to need to lock arms to not only protect our schools, but protect our students and our faculty. These working relationships are tremendously important for this community.
Will there be an internal affairs office to handle complaints against the police, if there happen to be any?
Davis: Absolutely. One of the key factors in hiring Chief Wagner was his ability to not only drive and work through the SRO program [at CCSO], in which he has lead that work for the last seven or eight years, but he has a past of leading the work for [CCSO’s] internal affairs. So he truly understands those dynamics, the seriousness of it and the importance of accountability.
Wagner: Yeah, so just to reiterate on that, I did internal affairs from 2003 to 2008 under two administrations, Sheriff Lancaster and Sheriff Beseler, but this department will be much smaller than those. So, with a smaller department, you have to rely heavily on command staff. Minor complains could be looked at by a supervisor while more serious offenses are taken into the hands of our detective or lieutenants. At that point, an investigation would be held and that’s where accountability and discipline could come into play.
As Chief, these investigations, all of this really, would be under my watch and I have to make sure that all things are done under Chapter 112 which is the police officer bill of rights. And you know, internal affairs isn’t just offenses and complaints — it can be compliments too.
How will the school board police department function?
Davis: It will look no different than any other police department. Like [CCSO], like [OPPD], like [GCSPD], our officers will have all of the necessary equipment and resources in order to fulfill their job in the most efficient manner within Clay County district schools.
Wagner: In terms of equipment, of course they will have firearms, vehicles, badges, handcuffs, ballistic vests and everything else. They will exist and function exactly the same way CCSO SROs did.
Will this school board police department use up all funds raised by the recent millage increase?
Davis: I’m thankful for our community in believing and understanding the need to continue to expand safety security within schools and with this millage increase, we’ll have about [$12 million] that the school district will use in order to address safety and security. With that being said, this department will not use up all of those funds.
These funds will be used not only to pay for this police department, but for school hardening as well. We’ll be targeting single-point entries, perimeter fencing, expansive surveillance within our schools and more. We’re looking at adding bulletproof resistance to things like doors and windows, and things beyond that as well.
We also have opportunities to expand this money from a four-year implementation into funds that can last five to seven years so that in four years, after this millage, we don’t necessarily have to immediately go back to the taxpayers to ask for more money.
Will the public be able to see how much money is spent on this police department?
Davis: Yes, our budget, which is where all costs associated with the police department and school hardening — everything is in there — will be transparent and annually [written up] each year. The public will be able to see all of this. They’ll see what we spend on equipment, software, collaborations, units, training and everything else.
My team and Chief Wagner will make sure that we use the money in an effective and efficient manner every single year and that will be visible to our public so they can see how we’re using our funding in order to make certain that safety is always the top priority.
What will these officers be doing during school holidays?
Davis: I’ll let Chief Wagner give you the details on that, but our work doesn’t stop. When school is out for the summer, or for winter break, or any time really, we will have resource officers circulating in and around our school protecting it.
Wagner: During the course of the school year when school is in session, our officers are not going to be able to take leave. The time for them to utilize leave is during the times when school is out, but even during those moments, our schools will be protected.
I think the biggest thing for us about summer is that it is a great time for us to provide extensive training to our resource officers, because you know, once they’re hired, their training doesn’t stop. During the summer, we can transition to de-escalation training, youth mental health training and a number of other types of trainings. There will be extensive and heavy training during these breaks.
Some people have said that the school board will use this police department to kick out people they disagree with during meetings. Is that the case?
Wagner: At the end of the day, law enforcement officers, whether their uniform is tan, green, blue or some other color, are sworn to uphold the constitution and at these public meetings, people have the right to speak and attend and that’s protected. Our job is not to be there to kick people out of meetings. We’re there to ensure things don’t escalate to any type of danger. Our primary function during those meetings is to protect everyone in the room.
Davis: I’ve been in education for 20 years and have never seen someone tossed out. All we want is that every single person involved with these meetings presents themselves in professional manner and if we can achieve that, there will never be any problems, and we have never had problems like that and I believe that will continue to be the case.
Will this police department have units like an investigative team, etc.?
Wagner: My plan is to have one truly dedicated investigator and that’s exactly what [CCSO] has right now. My plan also includes hiring officers with a minimum of two years of law enforcement experience. So, I’m looking for highly-seasoned officers with investigative backgrounds so that while yes, our sole investigator leads those operations, we have all of these offices with investigative backgrounds to assist with all of that.
We will also have relief officers for situations where someone must be arrested or transported off of a school campus. During those periods, the arresting officer might take the person they’ve arrested to their car at which point, they’ll transfer them to the appropriate jail. But, before that happens, a relief officer will come and assume the duties of the arresting officers. At no point will there ever be a lapse in police coverage at our schools.
We'll have an investigator, detectives, relief officers, officers and more. Our bases are covered.
How much training will these officers have?
Wagner: We touched on this already but there’s going to be a significant amount of training and it’s not ever just going to be one-time training. It’s going to be continuous professional improvement that each officer will undergo. They’ll be trained and certified just as any other police officer would be. They’ll go through the same law enforcement academy as other officers do. They’ll train in defensive tactics, mental health, firearms, general instructor and even cyber safety.
Our officers will at least be as trained as any other officer out there such as those at CCSO. My belief, though, is that we’re going to have even more training occur because I’m going to focus in on that. We are specialized and dealing directly with schools, so we will take advantage of every opportunity, like summer break, to train and train some more.
What power will these officers have?
Wagner: Our officers will be identical to every other officer out there. They will have the power to arrest, the power to give out citations and so on. At the end of the day, these officers are the same as those at CCSO or anywhere else. They’re just in a different uniform.
What are the benefits of having a dedicated police force?
Davis: We have to be reminded that when I came in as Superintendent, [CCSO] was only in our high schools. When I came on board, I saw the need to expand the role to place [CCSO] in more of our schools, especially in our secondary schools.
In those times, if something happened in the community and those SROs were the first and closest officers available, they would have to act as the first responders and transition from the school to the scene. The beauty of this police department, to me, is that we will have an officer committed to our schools 100 percent of the time. When school opens to when school closes, the students and faculty will be protected.
So, a lot of parents have said they’d be behind this school board if they were guaranteed more information. Some of their questions are as follows. Will their kids be safe? Will they be able to see the budget? Will there be healthy, working relationships with other agencies like CCSO and municipality departments?
Davis: The answer to all of those is absolutely, yes. I sympathize and empathize with our parents and community members, you know. I can openly say that yes, this was pushed at an expedited pace, but I think it was done so at this rate because the school board had to start putting the pieces in place now. And yes, I agree with the community that maybe we should have went out into the community and held community sessions and “listen and learns” to provide direction to parents and understand their feedback.
I’m not saying any of that would have changed where we are today, but I think it would have alleviated any questions parents might have right now regarding safety. I have two daughters in school in this school district and safety is my most sacred priority. I want to protect my children and the 40,000 children that darken our doorways every single day, as well as the 5,000 employees. We will make certain that safety is the foundation of every aspect within Clay County district schools.
So to answer your question, yes, the children will be safe. As we discussed earlier, our budget will be public to everyone and we will continue to uphold the strong, working and professional relationships we already have with [CCSO], [GCSPD] and [OPPD].
Why is this happening in September?
Davis: Now that guardians have been extended for the 2019-20 school year [after a recent new implementation by Gov. Ron DeSantis], the only timeline or deadline we have now is to make certain that our secondary schools are covered by Sept. 27. That is when the local agreement with [CCSO] sunsets. So, right now, we have guardians in every elementary school and resource officers in our high schools and with that, they’ll stay in place until we can cover the secondary schools that CCSO covered. After hiring those officers, we can transition the hiring process to the elementary schools.
One thing I heard a lot in our most recent school board meeting was parents asking us to slow down and this guardian program extension from DeSantis allows us to do that. So, we will have guardians continue their coverage while we look for the best individuals to protect our schools.
Wagner: We won’t be looking for someone who just understands law enforcement. I’m looking for someone that not only knows what they need to and has all of the proper certifications, but someone who communicates well with children and someone who can really connect with not only our students on campus, but the greater community as well.
Will there be any increase in taxes, other than the recent millage increase, as a result of this new police department?
Davis: Absolutely not. There has not been any conversation about an increase in taxes. The school board has not given any direction related to that either. This police department and future school hardening is sufficiently funded with the millage increase.
How will this police department be different from CCSO?
Davis: The only difference will be the actual officers and the uniforms they wear. The coverage, the protection, all of that — it will be identical.
Wagner: I’m not going to re-invent the wheel. I’ve done this for the last seven years and did so successfully with the plan that we had when I was with [CCSO]. I’m going to mirror that. It was effective, efficient and a lot of partnerships and a lot of the culture established during that time will be continued on from here.
I see the interactions the deputies had with the students and the bonds they created and I believe those bonds will be recreated. SROs would get promoted and have to leave behind the bonds they made with students. Then, a new officer would come in and that bond would be made anew. We will be renewing those bonds with our officers. I’m going to establish the culture here and ensure that it is a culture of fostering relationships with our students, our faculties and our community.
Wagner: Our officers have to go through the same academy training, the same state certification and the same training that any officer in the field would go through. Their uniform will be a different color, but they’ll have the same equipment, the same training, the same powers, the same bonds.
Davis: I want everyone to know that we are committed to this project and that we’re going to work harder every single day to ensure that we have beautiful relationships with local law enforcement agencies, that we continue to be professional in our work and that we continue to make certain that we protect our students every single day while providing them with the quality educational experience you’ve come to expect of Clay County. We will never put our students in harm’s way.