In South Florida's middle and high schools, police officers have long been considered necessities. In elementary schools, they're often viewed as luxuries.
But the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandyhook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., has fueled a debate over whether more officers are needed to protect grade school children, and who should pay for them in an era of constant budget cuts.
There have been calls for putting a tax on guns and ammunition or a fee on concealed weapons permits to pay for more resource officers. The National Rifle Association on Friday called on Congress to make money available to put armed officers in every school in the nation.
"We need to have every single school in America deploy a protection program proven to work, and by that I mean armed security," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in a Friday news conference.
Others say such a proposal is an expensive knee-jerk reaction to tragedy that could lead to a prison-like environment in elementary schools.
"Rather than spend the money on putting officers around schools, maybe you should put that money into mental health services," said parent Mindy Brodsky of Highland Beach.
State Rep. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who serves on two education committees, said she plans to set up a task force to assess the school security needs in Broward and Palm Beach counties. She said the group will include parents, teachers and gun permit holders.
"In any discussion that will take place about children's security, we need to first ask what kind of culture do we want our children growing up in," she said. "If we have our kids going to school in high security camps, that's not healthy either."
Police officers are stationed in all Broward and Palm Beach County middle and high schools. Palm Beach County elementary schools share police officers, while in Broward, it's a decision made by the different cities. Some put full-time officers in all their elementary schools, some share them between schools and others don't staff them at all.
"The current system is not working," said Sunrise Mayor Michael Ryan, who chairs a School Resource Officer task force for the League of Cities. "We need to come up with a plan for permanent funding."
While the Palm Beach school district pays the full cost of the officers, it faces similar financial challenges. District officials haven't decided whether to put full-time officers in every elementary school, which would cost an estimated $6.6 million.
"It's on everyone's mind, but we haven't had a public discussion on that," said Mike Burke, chief operating officer in the district. "But there's no additional funding to cover that so you have to take it from some place."
Ken Trump, an Ohio-based school security expert, said he expects President Obama to come out with a plan soon to provide funding, but he questions whether it will be sustainable.
He said districts and elected officials often make big investments in security after high-profile tragedies, such as the Columbine massacre in 1999. They successfully secure money, but when the grants run out, the positions often get cut, he said.
"We have a short-term, roller-coaster, public awareness policy. Right now public awareness is at a peak," he said. "But six months or six years down the road, public attention will move on the next issue of the day, and inevitably funding and conversations about school security will fall to the back burner."
In Broward, the school district and cities often point to each other when saying who should shoulder the costs. Under the current agreement, the district pays $46,000 per officer, with the cities picking up any other expenses.
But cities say the district's share is less than half the actual cost once salary, benefits, equipment and vehicles are factored in.
Fort Lauderdale has 17 elementary schools and only one, Sunland Park Elementary, has a school resource officer. Mayor Jack Seiler said it would cost about $3 million a year to put officers in every school.
"Obviously you can't put a dollar value on safety, but you have to make a decision," he said. "Is it better to use money to staff neighborhoods and have proper police response time?"
Cities have found the officers helpful in middle and high schools, especially as gangs, weapons and drug problems have increased. But violent incidents are far more rare at the elementary school level.
Sunrise parent Roseanne Eckert worries about the potential consequences of putting officers in every school. "Those cops are more likely to arrest children for normal childhood misbehavior than stop a madman," she said.
But advocates say the true value of resource officers is prevention. The officers get to know children and help them resolve problems that could escalate.
"We don't want kids to be scared by a resource officer. We want them to be approachable, more like a mentor," said Coral Springs Lt. Joe McHugh.
A full-time officer is stationed at A.C. Perry Elementary in Miramar, which pleases teacher Suzanne Atkin.
"We've had a lot of stuff going on in the neighborhood, with shootings and purse snatchings, but we feel so safe at the school because of our officer," she said.
Parent Mayde Wiener of Highland Beach said officers give parents a sense of security, but she isn't sure it's the best way for cash-strapped districts to spend their money.
"That's a tough call. Every parent says safety first but at what cost to a child's education?" she asked. "I would hate to take away from education for something that may be a long shot. But in a changing world, it may be needed."
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