The most important thing to a parent is the safety of their child. That is what makes it so hard for them to send their children off to school everyday, away from where they themselves can protect them. To give these families some sense of security, it has become standard practice for schools to station ‘resource officers,’ police officers dedicated to the protection of the students, on their campuses. But some counties, including Sarasota, have sanctioned full-fledged police departments solely committed to ensuring safety and order in schools.
On Apr. 17, 2018, the Sarasota County School Board decided to set in motion a plan to create their own police force. This was largely in response to heightened public anxiety over school shootings. Before this act, critics like Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight claimed that the school board was acting too slowly on measures to heighten school security.
“The Sarasota County Schools chose to create their own police department so they could have control, in the sense they could list their priorities,” Chief of Campus Police Michael Kessie said.
Additionally, Kessie said that an important benefit of police departments dedicated to schools is the ability for officers to get to know the students they are policing.
“[School Police Departments] have a little more time to devote to solving problems and take ownership of issues, rather than just having a police department come in, which probably is going call to call to call, to solve those problems,” Kessie said.
Money also played a role in the school board’s conception of its own separate police force. Following the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, the district was given roughly $2 million to use on school security related expenses. Even with this money, and a rollout of administrative cuts, the district will be running a deficit of an estimated $1.2 million over the next two years. Still, creating an independent school police department is cheaper than continuing on with the current practice of hiring officers from the local preexisting police departments. While this was the method employed in the past, the Sheriff’s office, the Sarasota Police Department and the North Port Police Department announced they would no longer be splitting the cost of said officers with the school board.
This program has experienced considerable turbulence since its announcement.
On June 18, Superintendent Todd Bowden announced he was in talks with local municipalities and the Sheriff’s Office to split the costs of resource officers for middle and high schools 80/20 for the upcoming year. However, the Sheriff’s Office quickly announced that Bowden had not met with Knight before making this announcement, and the talks fizzled out after that.
Knight and Bowden have had a seemingly strained relationship ever since text messages between Knight and Sarasota County School Board Member Eric Robinson were obtained and released by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The two exchanged messages trying to coordinate how to get the board to pay the full amount for the resource officers lent by the Sheriff’s Office. Additionally, the two insulted other members of the board and Bowden.
“Todd loves the power but not the responsibility or work,” Robinson said in a text message to Knight. “Give him hell.”
The next day, the board decided to allot $600,000 for equipment and investment, including $100,000 for vehicles, thus reaffirming their commitment to an independent police department for the schools.
Additionally, on Oct. 31, the Sarasota School Police Department underwent a major leadership shift. Former Security Head Michael Andreas suddenly resigned and former Police Chief Paul Grohowski was reassigned to a non-security position within the school district. In their place, the two positions were combined and assigned to Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Timothy Enos.
When asked by the Herald-Tribune about what the new combined position meant for the department at large, Bowden said:
“I’ve been asked throughout the day, ‘What is my level of commitment to having our own school police department?’ I will say, this decision is essentially doubling down on that: This reinforces the fact that we were right to start our own police department.”
“I think our school police department is working better than I, and many critics, expected,” Shirley Brown, a member of the School Board, said to The Catalyst over email.
The Sarasota School Police Department will manage elementary schools this year, with resource officers from local municipalities managing middle and high schools.
Information for this article was gathered from heraldtribune.com.