“They [parents] have real concerns about someone who is not a sworn police officer carrying a deadly weapon in schools. There are many, many, many things that could go wrong …” School Board member Ashley Smith Juarez
A month after Duval schools decided to hire and arm more than 100 “school safety assistants” to patrol elementary schools, the district has three times as many applications as it has jobs, a district official said Tuesday.
Micheal P. Edwards, director of the district’s police force, told the School Board that although he is hiring 105 safety assistants — one for each elementary school — 316 people have applied for the newly created positions.
School safety assistants are supposed to provide a first defense against armed intruders. They’re not sworn law enforcement officers, but they’ll carry guns, wear safety gear and get more training than most security guards.
In Duval County they’ll also be paid $12.50 an hour and work 10 months a year.
They also won’t look like police officers, Edwards said.
Duval’s dark blue school police uniforms resemble JSO’s and other police agency uniforms. The school safety assistants will wear tan vests and pants and tan or green shirts, he said.
Also, school police officers wear guns and safety gear in plain sight, on their belts.
School safety assistants will have some of the same gear and weapons — even bullet-resistant vests — but their guns must be concealed by state law, Edwards said.
That’s why the vests they wear will be long, like safari vests, covering their waist and their weapons. It will still be easy to reach them, he added.
“We want these individuals to be part of the school family,” Edwards said, adding that assistants may speak to children and school staff, but they won’t be counseling, teaching classes, investigating crimes or handling discipline, as regular school police sometimes do.
They’ll be do such things as checking doors and gates and making sure the schools comply with their safety plans.
The presence of 105 safety assistants considerably expands the district’s police force of 56 sworn officers.
“What I like the most about he plan is the school safety officer [will be] maneuvering around the school campus on a constant basis, so if they see something they can respond quickly,” said Paula Wright, board chairwoman.
The idea of an armed non-police force is controversial.
The School Board created the safety assistant program in May, after a new state law pushed districts to assign armed police or other armed staff to every school. It was a reaction to the deadly mass shooting at a Parkland high school in February.
Across the state, teachers balked at the idea of being armed. Duval officials also said they couldn’t afford the $10 million or so to hire and train enough police officers.
The safety assistants were a compromise most board members said they reluctantly approved.
But parents and even some board members are not happy.
One board member, Ashley Smith Juarez, said parents told her they plan to withdraw their children from school over the issue. “They have real concerns about someone who is not a sworn police officer carrying a deadly weapon in schools,” she said. “There are many, many, many things that could go wrong.”
Smith Juarez presented other options, such as not arming safety assistants but using the savings to hire more police officers who could travel from school to school. Tuesday she suggested allowing some schools to combine the cost of a safety assistant and a security guard to pay for a police officer.
Willis said she would look into it, but so far no school has asked for the latter option.
Board member Cheryl Grymes told Smith Juarez to accept the board’s decision and move on, considering the short time before school starts.
Duval will position safety assistants at most of its elementary schools, but its middle schools and high schools will have police. A few elementary schools with special units for students with behavior disorders also will have police.
The safety assistant job requires a concealed-carry weapons license, Edward said. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is providing classes free to applicants.
Once hired, the safety assistants will undergo 200 hours of additional training, mostly from JSO. That is less than the 770 hours typical police officers receive, Edwards said.
So far, 182 people have attended safety assistant orientation sessions and another 60 are invited to one on Saturday, Edwards said. Most are expected to seek a concealed weapons certificate.
Board member Rebecca Couch said the district shouldn’t get involved in the concealed weapons process, considering it’s unclear when and how the state will complete the requisite background checks. Smith Juarez said the district shouldn’t be promoting concealed carry licenses.
Edwards said the state has sped up background checks; what used to take 90 to 120 days now takes 13, because the state is trying to accommodating districts like Duval, which are scrambling to adhere to the new school safety law.