State Politics

$20M requested for Florida university police departments, counseling centers

Florida International University Police officer Sonia Meneses, left, chats with FIU students Colin Lugo, center, and Christian Colevas on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus, 11200 SW Eighth St., Miami. Meneses is assigned to on-campus housing. Florida’s public university system is requesting additional funding for more police officers and campus counseling resources.
Florida International University Police officer Sonia Meneses, left, chats with FIU students Colin Lugo, center, and Christian Colevas on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus, 11200 SW Eighth St., Miami. Meneses is assigned to on-campus housing. Florida’s public university system is requesting additional funding for more police officers and campus counseling resources. mhalper@miamiherald.com

A polarizing plan to allow concealed weapons at state colleges and universities has brought the issue of campus security to the forefront of many Florida lawmakers’ minds this fall. But the current state of university services has had little, if any, part in the conversation.

Unmentioned: A $20 million budget request from the State University System’s board of governors to correct what administrators and police chiefs describe as years of under-staffing and strained resources at campus police departments and student counseling centers across Florida’s 12 public universities.

Many of the departments and some of the counseling centers don’t meet industry-standard staffing levels of two police officers for every 1,000 students and one therapist for every 1,000-1,500 students, the universities reported.

University officials blame that outcome on inadequate dollars from the state in recent years, but they hope next year’s budget will include a specific line-item to fund their needs.

“Historically, we’ve not been very successful,” said Richard Beary, police chief for the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “We’re truly hoping people will take a long-term view and consider the risks that are real for universities — for the thousands of students, faculty and staff and millions of visitors to those campuses each year.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature have made it a priority to cut unnecessary spending across state government and hold the line on increases in tuition, fees and other student costs. Because of that, administrators said, universities have had to prioritize their annual appropriations — sometimes sacrificing other initiatives in order to redirect dollars and try to address, as best they can, the growing demands on police and mental health services.

But those efforts haven’t been able to keep pace with growing enrollment.

It’s painful when we can’t help the students that we want to help in a timely manner.

Ann Jaronski, University of South Florida counseling center director

Statewide enrollment grew 13 percent — from 297,700 students to 337,750 — between the 2008-09 and 2013-14 school years. During that time, counseling centers across the 12 universities saw a 48 percent increase in the number of clients and a 67 percent jump in therapy sessions — mostly spurred by cases of depression, anxiety and academic-related stress.

Emergency cases are always given priority, but the consequence of under-staffing has meant students with less-dire needs are often put on a waiting list or referred off-campus for long-term or more-intensive help — which puts up barriers for healthcare access and might increase students’ out-of-pocket expenses.

At one point this fall, the waiting list for a student seeking help at the University of South Florida’s counseling center in Tampa was three weeks, or a quarter of a semester, said Ann Jaronski, the center’s director and a licensed psychologist.

“That puts their academic progress potentially in jeopardy,” she said. “It’s painful when we can’t help the students that we want to help in a timely manner.”

Many campus counseling centers are funded out of student health fees. In recent years, some universities have been successful in getting incremental fee increases to help improve their staffing levels, but others haven’t.

“If we’re given funding from the Legislature to support this initiative to bring staff levels up to par, students won’t have to bear the cost of that through increases in fees,” said Kirk Dougher, a licensed psychologist and assistant vice president of health and wellness at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

After several hearings this year and input from all 12 universities, the university system’s board of governors presented lawmakers this fall with an itemized breakdown for each university’s requests for police and counseling centers: in total, $6.2 million for mental health services and $14 million for campus police.

“This isn’t, ‘Let’s come up with a magic number.’ This was vetted,” said Alexander Casas, police chief at Florida International University in Miami, which has requested $1 million for four additional police staff and $380,000 in equipment, plus three positions in its campus counseling center.

USF has also requested three counseling positions and 12 police positions, plus $721,000 in equipment, for a total of $1.5 million.

UCF has requested the most positions for both. It asks for $900,000 for 12 counseling positions and $3.3 million for 25 law enforcement positions and equipment. UCF reported a university system-low ratio of 1.06 officers for every 1,000 students.

The push to better fund campus police and mental health services actually began after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, but progress fizzled, university police chiefs said.

“There was a great deal of momentum, some good recommendations, but funding from the legislature never went along with them,” Beary said.

The shooting at Florida State University’s library one year ago — when a graduate suffering from mental illness opened fire and injured three people — brought a spotlight back to the issue, spurring the university system’s board of governors to assess each universities’ needs for police and mental health services.

This isn’t, ‘Let’s come up with a magic number.’ This was vetted.

Alexander Casas, police chief at Florida International University

“It’s not a new request,” FSU Police Chief David Perry said, echoing Beary.

Florida’s 28 community colleges — which operate under the Florida Department of Education — haven’t put forth a similar funding request. But college presidents have cautioned that, should the guns-on-campus legislation become law, they would need $74 million to fortify campus security. Only four campuses have their own police force and one has armed security.

“There hasn’t been an overwhelming identifiable need,” said Michael Brawer, CEO of the Association of Florida Colleges. “We’ve never been in this situation, where the potential impetus of more weapons-carriers in our learning environments existed.”

College and university presidents, administrators, police chiefs, faculty and student government groups oppose the guns-on-campus bill, which is backed by gun-rights advocates.

Scott will unveil his 2016-17 budget recommendation in Jacksonville on Monday, but Republican lawmakers in charge of setting agency budgets won’t have their proposals ready for several weeks yet.

Legislators responsible for education budgets said they are open to considering the universities’ special funding request, but they also say the Legislature isn’t to blame for not designating campus-safety dollars in the past.

While they support the universities’ effort to improve security, they said receiving an unrestricted pool of money is the way universities want to be — and have been — funded.

“On the contrary, they’ve asked us to not be over-prescriptive with their dollars,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who serves as chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “I don’t think it’s as a result of a short-change; it’s a different way to request that.”

Sen. Don Gaetz, the Senate education budget chairman, agrees.

“I tend to want to avoid micromanagement of how colleges or universities spend operational dollars,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “I’m for increased funding, but I also wouldn’t want to be overly restrictive and tell them what they can and can’t do.”

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