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In Florida, Schools Under Pressure To Get Rid Of Police Officers

A Broward County Sheriff's Office vehicle is parked outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee
A Broward County Sheriff's Office vehicle is parked outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla.

After a school shooting left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the county sheriff's office decided to arm its school-based deputies with automatic rifles.

It was nine days after the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting, and Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said issuing the weapons was "a stopgap measure to create a heightened sense of security around the district."

Olivia, who was a freshman at the time at another Broward County school, remembers getting off the bus and making eye contact with one of several police officers with AR-15s in their hands.

"I looked over, and he looked right at me. And the way he stared at me was terrifying," she said.

"He looked like I was a threat. I didn't feel like a person anymore, like all he was seeing was my skin. It just hurt so much .... to be seen like this, just because I'm Black."

Olivia, who is now 17, asked to be identified only by her given name, because she has been threatened on social media after participating in Black Lives Matter protests this spring.

She is just one of many Black students who say the presence of armed law enforcement officers in Florida schools makes them feel less safe.

Since a white police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, and protesters filled the streets in historic uprisings, major school districts throughout the country have voted to get police out of schools, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Portland, Denver, and some schools in Chicago.

Student activists in South Florida want the same thing to happen here. But they face what could be an insurmountable challenge: widespread security fears in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. Shortly after the massacre two and half years ago, Florida passed a law requiring a police officer or armed guard on every campus.

A report earlier this month from the University of Florida found the number of police on school campuses statewide nearly doubled since then — and with that big jump in officers came a big jump in arrests at school.

Civil rights groups are working to get the law repealed. In the meantime, students here are pushing for whatever they can get — even if it's just pulling some funding away from police and using it instead to hire more teachers, social workers and counselors.

Big jump in arrests

The study conducted by a top education researcher at UF found that the increase in police stationed at Florida schools was driven largely by new officers at elementary schools. Arrests at schools jumped by up to 82 percent, the report found.

The higher presence of police officers at schools also resulted in more student disciplinary infractions being reported to law enforcement, "particularly for less severe infractions and among middle schoolers," according to the report.

"There was little consistent evidence that the presence of law enforcement decreased the number of behavioral incidents occurring, indicating that school-based law enforcement were not necessarily making schools safer," wrote the report's author, F. Chris Curran, director of UF's Education Policy Research Center.

"We should have some real concerns about the potential tradeoffs that come with putting law enforcement in schools," particularly the risk of exacerbating the school-to-prison pipeline, Curran said during an interview.

Several incidents involving South Florida police and Black children in recent years illustrate student activists' and researchers' concerns.

Earlier this year, a cell phone video surfaced showing a Miami-Dade school resource officer threatening to shoot a group of Black students while placing her hand on her gun. Also, in Orlando, a cop stationed at a charter school was fired after arresting a 6-year-old Black girl — an incident that went viral nationally and sparked an unsuccessful effort to pass a state law setting a minimum age for arrest.

Olivia and her fellow student activists in Broward County pointed to another arrest of a Black teenager last year to demonstrate why Black kids see police as threatening rather than protective.

Broward Sheriff's Office deputies were caught on video violently arresting DeLucca Rolle, a then-15-year-old Black student at a high school in Coral Springs, Fla. Police had been called to break up a fight in the parking lot of a McDonald's near the school where students often hang out in the afternoons waiting to get picked up.

Officers pepper sprayed Rolle, punched him and repeatedly slammed his head into the pavement, fracturing his nose. Two deputies now face misdemeanor battery charges.

"That's why we don't want police in schools, because they're just another way of white supremacy sneaking into the schools and breaking our students down," Olivia said.

Joy, another Black 17-year-old high school senior in Broward County, also asked not to be identified by her full name because she has faced online harassment.

"They feel like because we are children, they can continue to abuse their power," Joy said, referring to police. "That is why removing cops from schools is to protect the Black community, because when cops are in schools, they're not here to protect us."

Broward County Public Schools spent $50.6 million on safety and security in 2019-20, with a total budget of about $4.7 billion.

Gregory Tony, Broward's first Black sheriff, said he is disappointed to hear that Black students feel threatened and intimidated by his deputies, and he said he's trying to improve that. He argued schools need police to protect students from serious threats like shooters, and he said he wants Black kids to feel protected, too.

"As a Black man, I live the injustices," Tony said. "I felt it as a young kid in the street. I was George Floyd. At 16, I got slammed against the ground. I had a knee on my neck in Philadelphia by a bunch of overly aggressive and abusive officers. Fortunately, I wasn't choked to death for eight minutes and 46 seconds. But I have never forgotten that experience.

He recently allocated $1 million of the agency's budget toward racial equity and implicit bias training.

Tony was appointed sheriff last year after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended the previous sheriff, Scott Israel, over the agency's mistakes in responding to the Parkland shooting.

Tony, who was re-elected last month, said school police still carry long rifles, including AR-15s, on campuses, like Olivia remembered seeing shortly after the Parkland shooting. But now they're instructed to store them rather than carry them around, according to Tony.

Just south in Miami-Dade County, student activists have long fought to get rid of police in public schools.

Power U, a youth empowerment group that supports student activists in Miami-Dade, hosted virtual webinars and phone bank events throughout the summer to mobilize a renewed push for reallocating funding spent on police to mental health care.

Power U argues the district is going above and beyond the state mandate.

The district has its own police agency, which student activists believe is an unnecessary duplication of the county's department. Miami-Dade Schools Police is the largest school district police force in the country, with nearly 500 officers. There's a canine unit, a bicycle unit, a high-tech surveillance infrastructure and a team of investigators. Schools have other security staff, as well.

The district's $5.4 billion budget in 2019-20 included about $53.4 million for police and security. Spending on mental health was $8.4 million. That will jump to $11.3 million for the current school year because of an increase in state funding.

"For the past 15 to 16 years, we've been asking to defund police officers. We've been asking to have mental health. We've been asking for that," said Keno Walker, a Black staff organizer for Power U who started with the group when he was 13, and was himself a student in the district.

"And now, in this moment, the world is asking for it," he said. "Don't be left behind."

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho did not agree to an interview for this story. His office sent a statement from the district's police chief, Edwin Lopez.

"Miami Dade Schools Police Department School Resource Officers are trained to provide the necessary support for children in an effort to guide them as needed, always utilizing arrest as an ultimate last resort," the statement said.

Civil rights groups pressure Florida legislature to repeal law

The ACLU of Florida and the Southern Poverty Law Center have consistently opposed increasing the police presence in Florida schools and allowing some teachers and other staff to be armed, arguing the changes imposed after the Parkland shooting would hurt students of color in particular.

The ACLU says it will lobby state lawmakers to repeal the law requiring a police officer or armed guard on every school campus. But short of that, it wants an amendment to allow school districts more flexibility.

"For instance, a school district could just increase patrols around the school ... to make sure that police are close by if something happens on campus, but not integrated into the schools," said Michelle Morton, research coordinator and policy counsel for the ACLU of Florida.

But mass shootings happen fast. Ryan Petty's 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and he worries if officers aren't on campus, dozens of students could be injured or killed while waiting for them to arrive and confront a shooter.

Petty, who is white, now sits on the Florida Board of Education. He recently wrote op-eds for Newsweek and CNN urging school districts not to abandon their relationships with police departments.

"Look, I'm a father that lost a daughter. And I can say the words: these are low probability events. But they're high impact," Petty said. "And so we want to prevent those, and we want to mitigate those as much as possible."

He said police are the ones to do that — even though, he acknowledged, the officer assigned to the Parkland high school didn't go in during the shooting there.

That, Petty said, isn't an argument for no police officers in schools — but for better ones.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.