TAMPA — The 411 students adjusting to all the chaos of a new school year at Ballast Point Elementary have something new to wrap their heads around this year.
He’s Quentinlee Morgan, an armed officer in uniform who doesn’t exactly blend in as he makes his way down a hall and out to the playground.
The students, generally 5 to 10, react in different ways. Some keep their distance. Some are in awe, as though in the presence of a celebrity. Others are quizzical.
“Is that a Taser?” one boy asks, pointing to Morgan’s gun. The officer replies patiently, “No, it is not.”
“That’s cool,” another student says.
Morgan, 26, is not a police officer, but he looks like one. He dresses in full uniform and has a 40-caliber semi-automatic handgun clipped to his belt along with two radios — one to keep in touch with school staff and another that connects him to local law enforcement agencies.
He is one of 20 new mobile community school officers the Hillsborough County school district hired during the summer to patrol elementary schools in the first phase of a $4.5 million four-year plan to place an officer at each county elementary full time.
Morgan’s beat is six elementary school campuses in the South Tampa area. His list of duties is long and includes making sure exterior gates and doors are locked, guarding against trespassers, resolving conflicts, conducting drills, training staff in emergency procedures and interacting with students during lunch periods.
He is expected to build relationships with the school community and teach students about crime prevention, pedestrian safety and bullying.
“We’re not looking for the next mass shooting,” Morgan said. “We’re not trying to take kids to jail. We’re child advocates.”
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By 2016, district officials hope to have an officer, either employed by the district or local law enforcement agencies, in every single elementary school.
Before this school year, 19 of Hillsborough’s 145 elementary schools already had their own district-employed community school officer. Ten got a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputy last school year through a federal grant. Each middle and high school has its own deputy or Tampa police officer.
After the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, the district stationed officers at elementary schools for the rest of the school year.
Principals told the school board they feel safer with a guard patrolling their schools, and a plan was hatched to place an officer on every district campus within four years.
In a 4-3 decision, the school board approved $815,000 for the first phase late last year.
Two weeks into the new school year, the new officers are getting settled into their roles, district security chief John Newman said.
“We have them rotating to the sites, seeing principals,” Newman said. “They’re finding their way with their administrators, and their administrators are finding their way with them.”
The plan has its critics. The head of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Michael Pheneger, said he’s worried it will mean more student arrests.
School board members April Griffin, Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes voted against the first phase, citing the cost as a major concern.
If the remaining funding is approved in each of the next three years, 38 more officers would be hired next year, 40 would be added in the third year, and every school would have its own officer in the fourth year.
Eight months after the first phase got the board’s stamp of approval, Valdes sees the value of having an officer in every elementary school but remains apprehensive. She wants to hear a report on the first phase before deciding whether to support future ones.
“I think we have a very safe community for the most part,” said Valdes, who opposed the measure because she thought the money could be better spent elsewhere — like on strengthening the district’s beleaguered transportation department.
“I don’t anticipate — knock on wood — that we would have a situation like Sandy Hook.”
Even so, Valdes said, the officers could help shape a positive image of law enforcement for the district’s youngest students.
“The police aren’t always bad,” she said. “That’s a really exciting opportunity to be able to ensure the kids know that law enforcement is there to protect and serve.”
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Unlike sworn law enforcement officers, the community school officers hired through the school district’s in-house security department can handcuff and detain but cannot make arrests. Their training isn’t as robust, and the population they deal with is smaller and more predictable.
“In law enforcement, the customer changes all the time,” Newman said. “Here, the customers are the folks that come to your campuses. If they don’t embrace you, it’s going to be a long year.”
The similarities: They have the same type of uniforms and carry the same kind of guns.
“The defensive tactics are not nearly as comprehensive” for the district-employed officers, Newman said. A sworn law enforcement officer goes through about a year of training, compared with 10 weeks for a school district officer, he said.
Newman, a former assistant Tampa police chief, took over school security in April after the retirement of longtime security chief David Friedberg.
Community school officers are required to have state-issued security and firearm licenses and a high-school diploma or vocational or GED certificate. They must have at least two years of previous experience in security, or one year if they’ve been to college.
The officers go through a psychological evaluation, firearm training and a physical assessment course.
They attended workshops over the summer, some in conjunction with Tampa police, that covered everything from how to handle an active shooter to dealing with students with special needs. They learned how the alarm systems at their schools work. Also covered were civil citations and laws on trespassing and burglary.
Newman said the district received hundreds of applications for the positions, but many were from people who weren’t qualified. The 20 who were hired were chosen from a group of about 50 who qualified.
Their pay averages about $34,000 a year.
Many of the officers have years of experience in law enforcement or the military. Morgan served in the Army for eight years and did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another officer is a retired Tampa policeman who was a school resource officer.
“You’re not getting a ragtag security guard,” Morgan said. “You’re not getting the guy who worked mall security.”
Ballast Point Elementary is nestled in the Ballast Point neighborhood just west of waterfront Ballast Point Park. It is a quiet, safe part of town.
Even schools like this, where crime and violence are rare, benefit from an officer on campus, Newman said. He wants the principals to put the officers to work. They can make safety presentations to classes, counsel a student who’s having a hard time and make home visits to consult with families if a student is having trouble at school.
“Once they realize that person is there as a resource, they’re going to find things for them to do they never realized they could,” Newman said.
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Principal Debra Fitzpatrick appreciates having Morgan on campus, saying, “Just a presence of a uniform makes parents feel more secure.”
Aside from Ballast Point, Morgan is responsible for keeping five other elementary schools safe: Lanier, Anderson, Chiaramonte, Roosevelt and West Shore.
Each officer’s cluster of schools is arranged to ensure there is only a five-minute response time from one school to another. This year, every elementary is in a cluster. The district soon will supply each of the new officers a car so they can spend time at several schools each day. Until then, Morgan and the others are spending each day at a different school, getting to know the students, parents and staff.
On Thursday, while patrolling the Ballast Point campus, Morgan walked onto the playground to gasps from a few second-graders. Their teacher, Elba Matthies, said they are still getting accustomed to having him around. For her, his presence is comforting.
“It’s just lovely,” Matthies said. “These days an awful lot of things happen in elementary, middle and high school.”