The Duval County School Board’s recent decision to hire and arm “school safety assistants” to patrol elementary schools continues to create tension and dissension among some board members.
At a board agenda meeting Tuesday, Cheryl Grymes scolded fellow board member Ashley Smith Juarez for persisting in her questions about the district’s plan to hire and arm about 105 safety assistants in the coming school year.
The safety assistants aren’t law enforcement officers, but they will be armed and equipped like officers. They will be trained in a fraction of the time police officers train, and they will be paid $12.50 an hour, much less than sheriff’s deputies or school police make.
A majority of Duval’s school board — by 6-to-1 — last month voted to create the positions of safety assistants to patrol the perimeters of school campuses and deter or stop armed intruders.
They’re complying with a new state law requiring districts to place law enforcement officers or armed staff, sometimes called guardians, at each public school by August. The law, with some accompanying statte funding, was a response to Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland.
Duval officials, like many other district leaders, say that the state has not allotted enough money for large districts to hire police for every school. The safety assistants are an affordable compromise, they say.
But parents and community members are skeptical. Many have emailed or called the board.
Smith Juarez, the only board member who voted against the safety assistants, said she heard from more than 50 parents who are against the idea. She also held two community forums to explain the safety plan, but there was opposition there, too.
A petition critical of the plan on the Change.org website has nearly 1,000 signatures, Smith Juarez said.
As she has done at earlier board meetings, Smith Juarez asked district leadership to research whether the district can afford to hire more officers if it forgoes the safety assistants and uses that money and what now spends on unarmed security guards.
Some board members pushed back.
Grymes accused Smith Juarez of helping to start the petition, although Smith Juarez denied it.
Grymes also said board members are supposed to accept board decisions, even if they don’t agree with them, and to move on to other district business, instead of continually bringing up their losing arguments. She accused Smith Juarez of demonstrating poor leadership.
“It’s bad governance and it’s disrespectful to your colleagues,” she said. “It has to stop. It’s been very wearying and emotional. At what point do you stop?”
Smith Juarez said she is sorry Grymes feels that way but she believes she is listening to and voicing constituent concerns. She added she seeking other possible alternatives.
“If a board member who has opposition to a policy, it is that board member’s prerogative to continue and at every vote to voice that opinion,” she said.
“I appreciate that this as not an easy issue for anyone. I’m asking that we look for specific, and tangible, different avenues to pursue.”
The measure in question Tuesday was whether to put into board policy the permission for safety assistants to be armed on school campuses. The board approved the job description for the safety assistants last month.
Other board members said they, too, have heard from parents and community members skeptical of the plan, but it is an imperfect solution that they have reluctantly accepted.
“This is an impossible position that the school boards are placed in,” said board member Rebecca Couch, noting that the state legislature gave districts only three months and not enough money to hire and arm responsible people for each school.
“This isn’t a perfect choice for me; I struggle with it,” she said, adding she hopes people signing the petition against Duval’s plan will also contact state legislators. She noted that the state still has a surplus and has spent nearly a $1 billion on private school vouchers, so the legislature can afford to better fund school safety mandates.
Couch also floated the idea of asking local voters to foot the bill, either through a referendum to raise taxes or through a bond issue, but it would take two years before the district saw any money.
Board Chairwoman Paula Wright told Smith Juarez that her questions and objections were already covered in a prior meeting she missed. The district looked at how many more police officers they could afford using the state safety money but it wasn’t nearly enough to meet state requirements.
The state designated about $2.4 million to the district for arming police or sheriff’s deputies, but district officials said it would cost about $10 million to arm deputies for the district’s 167 schools. Board members say the safety assistants are a less expensive option.
Also, district safety director Micheal Edwards said recently there is a shortage and a demand for law officers in Florida; Duval is struggling to find enough to hire to fill existing open police positions, much less the new school safety jobs.
“I don’t think anybody has a problem with you expressing an opinion; you have that right,” Wright told Smith Juarez. “But the board has decided where we’re moving.”