Having police officer at school lessens stress for parents, kids

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.”

Deputy Kevin Stripling, spokesman for the Florida Association of School Resource Officers, said cost is the reason most elementary schools lack SROs. “A lot of people call us kiddie cops, but we are not security guards you pay $10 an hour,” he said. “SROs are sworn officers who have been trained.”

Ryan says it costs about $110,000 to $120,000 per year for one SRO. This includes training, salary, benefits, pension, uniforms, insurance, weapons, and a police car. But that officer also usually performs other law enforcement duties when schools are not in session. Presently, the Broward School Board reimburses municipalities $46,252 per officer.

The recession has decimated the SRO program in Broward, which now has 33 fewer SROs than it did in 2006. While part of that is due to the loss of 10 schools, most of the other lost positions were at the elementary level.

Parents at Plantation Key School say they are fortunate they have a full-time SRO.

“I do feel safer that we have Officer Larry,” Julia Sharkey said as her 7-year-old daughter held her hand. “I think every school should have someone there. I don’t think it’s a waste of money at all. He does a lot for the kids.”

Responding to the spate of recent shootings at public places, O’Neill now prominently parks his marked police cruiser at the school’s entrance. “There is no missing it,” he said. “It says: If you come in here with bad intentions, you’re going to have to deal with the police.”

But his job is not to stand guard all day. There are 12 cameras that cover the school, but he is not the one who monitors them.

O’Neill’s job is as much proactive as reactive. He leads the Sheriff’s Office’s cadet program for fifth- to eighth-graders and teaches Project Alert (a drug-awareness course for seventh-graders). He also addresses any threats and deals with criminal or worrisome activity within the school.

But unlike his days on the FBI’s Fugitive Task Force — when his main mission was to arrest bad guys, including the prison escapee — now his quest is to help impressionable kids stay on the right track and out of the justice system. He has dealt with cases of students possessing minor weapons or small amounts of marijuana. He has handled fights, petty thefts, and an eighth-grade girl who had made a “hit list.”

Plantation Key School has had great success working with the Intensive Delinquency Diversion Service, a juvenile intervention program in which a child who commits a misdemeanor can receive a noncriminal citation for the first incident.

“The goal is not to bury a kid with his first misdemeanor case,” he said. “If the kid successfully completes the program, the case goes away. If the kid blows the program, IDDS can send it over to the court for prosecution.”

Discretion is especially important in an elementary/middle school. “Fifth-graders who are pulling each other’s hair in the lunch line is not battery,” O’Neill said. “You don’t criminate youthful stuff.”

O’Neill, who just turned 50 and sings and plays guitar in a rock band called Second Chance, knows youthful stuff. He is the father of four children, aged 13 to 30. His 23-year-old, Matt, also is a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office. O’Neill also is a grandfather of two.

“My job is to think like a parent sometimes,” he said.

But he also has to take many things more seriously now than when he began parenting three decades ago. “School policing has dramatically changed since Columbine,” O’Neill said of the 1999 school massacre in Colorado.

“If you make threats in school, you’re going to get the attention of staff who are going to let me know,” O’Neill said. “But it totally depends on the context. Little kids say: ‘If you don’t stop taking my French fries, I’m going to blow up your head.’ They don’t have a clue what they are talking about.”

But O’Neill did investigate the eighth-grader with the “hit list.” He met with the family and it has been determined the girl was just dealing with anxiety by writing it down and had no intention of acting on it.

“I have done several knock-and-talks,” he said. These often include a request to search the student’s bedroom. “Many times, it’s a wakeup call for a parent who did not know what was going on with their child.”