(St. Lucie County) April 2021
Chief Deputy Brian Hester
On the morning of February 14, 2017, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School said goodbye to their family and went to school. Little did they know that some of them would never return home. In the hours that followed, Nikolas Cruz, a former student, would take the lives of 17 students and staff and injure 17 others. The aftermath of this tragic event has changed the way at Florida, and the nation, view the safety of our schools.
The School Resource Deputy Program in St. Lucie County dates back to 1984 when a Grand Jury was convened by Judge Philip Nourse to address crime and safety in St. Lucie County Schools. The Grand Jury’s findings included the bold statement that “St. Lucie County schools simply will not tolerate drugs or other criminal activities on campus” and that “regular policing of school campuses by law enforcement” should be implemented.
As a result of these findings, a Committee on School Safety was created with representation by school officials, community leaders, law enforcement and members from the Grand Jury and in 1985, then-Sheriff R.C. “Bobby” Knowles invited Leon County Sheriff’s Office to present their newly created School Resource Officer program to the Committee. The Committee overwhelming concluded that a program of this type would “answer all findings and recommendation of the Grand Jury”.
The program called for a uniformed officer, employed by the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office, be placed at each middle and high school with three “pillars” of responsibility: law enforcement, educator, counselor.
In April of 1986, the St. Lucie County School Resource Deputy (SRD) Program was unveiled at Central High School, Westwood High School, Lincoln Park High School, Dan McCarty Middle School and Northport Middle School. Funding was provided by the county-funded Sheriff’s Office budget and initially cost $250,000 annually. Then-superintendent of schools George Hill said he was so excited about the partnership that he was going to “finance 50% of the program” through the school district.
Over time, the SRD program grew as the population in the county grew and the number of public schools expanded. In 2009, the SRD program was at its highest with 43 deputies and were in all levels of public school, including elementary and funding was still a 50/50 split between the Sheriff’s budget and the School District budget.
The recession of 2010 greatly impacted the SRD program, reducing staffing levels to 23, eliminating deputies from elementary schools. Also eliminated was all funding from the School District. Fortunately, the Board of County Commissioners believed so strongly in the program that they stepped to the plate and provided full funding for the scale-down program. Port St. Lucie Police Department also stepped in and offered to provide three officers, one at each of the Port St. Lucie based high schools. Since 2010, the Board of County Commissioners has invested more than $17 million to insure the program continues.
In 2015, as the economy was beginning to level back out, personnel were added back to the SRD program, but never returned to the elementary school level. Funding from the School District returned at a nominal $400,000 per year. At the same time, our office began adding new components to the program to increase the level of engagement with students and parents. These new programs included summer camps, swim lessons, Christmastime shop-with-a-cop events, educational presentations on overdose prevention, Internet safety, bullying and others and launched the innovative Pop Up Park Parties and Community-Youth Dialogue initiative.
In the hours after the tragic shooting in Parkland, I immediately set into motion a plan to significantly enhance the level of service to our public schools and ensure they remain a safe place for students, teachers, staff and visitors.
On February 15, the day after the shooting, law enforcement personnel from across the agency were placed at ALL schools throughout the county and close patrols and foot patrols were ordered at all schools through the remainder of the school year. The multi-disciplinary Committee on School Safety, originally created in the 80s after the Grand Jury, was re-constituted and charged with reviewing the current SRD program, consistent training for shooting incidents, Code Red school evacuation drills and information sharing between law enforcement agencies and school district staff.
On March 6, 2017 we implemented a plan to permanently staff all elementary schools and on March 19 expanded that plan to include county Charter Schools. This plan was made possible through re-assigning personnel from other units throughout the agency.
Governor Rick Scott, in concert with the Florida Legislature, signed into law the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act on March 9 that included mandates for staffing all publicly-funded schools with a law enforcement officer and other initiatives to enhance the level of security in schools. While some additional state funding was provided in this legislation, it was nowhere near the amount needed to comply with the edicts of the law. These requirements forced the agency to increase SRD staffing to 53 deputies and four supervisors and mandated that schools would be staffed from “bell to bell”.
The costs to comply with the law in St. Lucie County is estimated at almost $7 million. The state provided one-seventh of funding needed and the school district increased their $400,000 contribution to a total of $800,000. The Board of County Commission agreed to provide a total of $4.5 million, leaving us to reduce services in other areas to make up the difference.
In April of 2019, voters in St. Lucie County approved a referendum to ensure total funding of this security initiative for four years. You can learn more at https://www.stlucie.k12.fl.us/referendum-information/.