ISLAMORADA -- During Larry O’Neill’s long career at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, he has worked road patrol, solved crimes, and hunted down criminals wanted for armed burglary, molesting children, and breaking out of a prison.
But seven years ago, seeking a stable schedule so he could take ministry college classes in Miami, O’Neill gave up his detective position to become school resource officer (SRO) at Plantation Key School, an elementary/middle school in the Upper Keys town of Islamorada.
“I got teased,” O’Neill admitted. “I went from looking for really bad people to giving high-fives to 8-year-olds.”
For the first month as an SRO, he was lost and questioned what he had gotten himself into. He needed help to figure out the mission of a gun-toting, uniformed cop in a school of 467 kids, ranging from pre-kindergartners learning their ABCs to young teenagers hitting puberty in eighth grade.
But as the months turned to years, the 28-year veteran of law enforcement says the job’s mission and importance became clear. That realization was reinforced last month in a letter he received just days after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, where a gunman massacred 20 first-graders and six adults in only a few minutes before police could arrive. Sandy Hook did not have an SRO.
The letter, folded up like origami, was slipped under his office door at lunchtime. It read: “Officer Larry, I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am to have you as our officer here at PKS and that I feel safe … and protected. What just recently happened in Connecticut really shook me up, but I know I am in good hands from 8 a.m. to 2:45 here. … Another thing I wanted to say is Merry Christmas.”
The letter, complete with decorated palm tree, was signed: “A fellow sixth-grader at PKS.”
While SROs have become more commonplace in public high schools, and even middle schools, they are still a luxury for most elementary schools in Florida. The only other Keys elementary school that has a dedicated SRO is the Key Largo School, also pre K-8, with 890 students.
In Miami-Dade County, which has the fourth-largest school district in the nation with 392 schools and 345,000 students, no public elementary school has a dedicated SRO. But the district has one of the only school police departments in the state, with SROs from its middle and high schools providing a presence at elementary schools during peak arrival and departure times. It also has 37 mutual-aid agreements with local and state law enforcement agencies that service the county, said Sgt. Ivan Silva, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department.
“We always try to do the best we can with the personnel available,” Silva said of the 160-person schools police department.
In Broward County, most public elementary schools do not have full-time SROs, but a task force led by Sunrise Mayor Michael Ryan has been working to change that for more than a year. The issue isn’t whether it’s a good idea, but where the funding will come from, he said. Broward’s legislative delegation is meeting Friday with members of the task force to try to come up with a solution.
“I don’t know whether it is a goal or a dream,” he said. “But we’re trying.”