School board rejects sheriff’s proposal to take over safe school department

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during the Marion County School Board workshop in Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted December 21, 2022 | By Caroline Brauchler

The Marion County School Board on Thursday rejected Sheriff Billy Woods’ proposal to absorb the school district’s Department of Safe Schools into the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

The department, led by Dennis McFatten, falls under the jurisdiction of the superintendent and oversees the communication between schools and law enforcement and implements security measures and emergency preparedness, according to MCPS.

Woods’ proposal was for the sheriff’s office to take over this department, hire its employees and pay the cost of their salaries, according to the agreement. The school district would then reimburse the sheriff for the expense.

Similar agreements have been implemented in Brevard and Seminole counties. Woods said he formed the basis of his proposed agreement by reviewing each of those agency’s juvenile units, which house school safety units.

Regardless of the board members’ opinions of the proposal’s contents, School Board Chair Allison Campbell said that it could not pass due to a matter of policy.

In September, the board passed a policy that instructs the superintendent to work in conjunction with the district’s school safety specialist and advice from local law enforcement to develop a school safety and security plan. This means that school safety cannot be moved to Woods’ jurisdiction unless Superintendent Diane Gullet and her team put forth procedures within the policy to recommend it.

The school board put the proposal up for discussion at its Dec. 15 work session, where 34 members of the public spoke about why or why not the agreement should happen.

Woods, who was not originally slated to speak during the work session, was invited by Campbell to address the issues raised by the public.

“If anyone is perceiving this proposal as a means for me to fire a [district] employee, that is not the case at all,” Woods said. “I’d like to hire the five (safety office) employees to ensure that they would not lose their job, waive the standard probationary period and then assure you that they will have all of the benefits of a deputy training and all available resources.”

Woods also stated this in his letter to Gullet, saying that MCSO would take over the cost of employing the members of the safe school department and hire them to continue their same responsibilities for the district but as sworn deputy sheriffs.

He encouraged the board to delay making a decision until a greater conversation could be had to iron out any potential policy issues.

One of the audience members, former Ocala Police Chief Morrey Deen, spoke against the proposal, stating that he didn’t want to see the school district become a “police state.”

“If it was intended for local law enforcement agencies to take over the school process, they’d have done that in Tallahassee,” he said.

Deen said he has seen proposals like this become a “political football” within the community, and that those who support it and those who dissent are using the discussion to argue a broader issue of supporting law enforcement, when that is not the issue at hand.

Deen, who said he had 30 years of law enforcement experience, was a part of the push to start the school resource officer program under Ocala Police Chief Lee McGhee. To this day, the school resource officer contracts among the school district, the sheriff’s office, the Belleview Police Department and the Ocala Police Department stand as the method for law enforcement presence across MCPS.

Another audience member, Bruce Atkinson, spoke in support of the proposal while referencing the elementary school mass shooting that occurred in Uvalde, Texas in May.

“In Uvalde, Texas, we saw what happened when there’s not a clear chain of command,” he said. “Human frailties came in and that delayed the response of law enforcement … and the sad consequence was more lives destroyed.”

Atkinson said he believes that placing the safe school department under the jurisdiction of the sheriff would improve the emergency preparedness and law enforcement response in the case of a similar crisis.

Several representatives from the Marion County NAACP came forward to express their concerns that the proposal would exacerbate the already disproportionate disciplinary action toward students of color.

Francine Julius Edwards, political action committee member for the branch, said she feared Marion County turning into a place of “political cultural tribalism,” and found the proposal “concerning and intrusive.”

“We fear that the law enforcement may tend to over-police or racial profile or worse to our black brown and disenfranchised students and staff,” Edwards said. “Predictable policing like (what happens in) Pasco County creates a secret list of students who their department suspects will commit crimes, further creating a paranoid place of learning.”

In 2021, the Department of Education opened an investigation into the Pasco County school district to determine if it violated FERPA by sharing educational records of students with the sheriff’s office. The information was used to compile a list of “at-risk” students based on grades, discipline and attendance records. The Pasco County School Board quickly revised their policy to prevent law enforcement from accessing these educational records.

Several of those supporting the proposal shared the belief that having law enforcement in schools helps teach children to have a positive relationship with police as they grow older. One commenter, Robert Schmidt, said he believed that putting safety in the hands of law enforcement will allow for administrators and teachers within the district to solely focus on providing students with a higher quality of education.

“The proposal provides incredible flexibility for the school system and does not estrange our current school safe school staff. It puts law enforcement where it needs to be and school administrators where they need to be,” he said.

The superintendent said input and advice from law enforcement agencies already is a crucial part of the district’s security plan.

“I want to make sure it’s clear that we are looking for, as per policy, input from representatives of local law enforcement agencies,” she said. “That’s a critical part of this.”

Gullet shared her intention to form a committee made up of staff, students, parents and law enforcement to discuss this proposal, but also school security as a whole to ensure that the district can be fully prepared and prevent emergencies before they happen.

“There’s not an emergency, but we need to move with a sense of urgency forward,” she said. “I think everyone in this audience, as well as our community at large, agrees with that.”


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