TAMPA — At each public middle and high school in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, an armed sheriff's deputy or police officer is on duty every day, to patrol the halls, interact with students and give presentations on topics like drugs and bullying.
Less than two dozen of Hillsborough's nearly 150 elementary schools have an officer or deputy on site every school day. There are none in Pasco elementaries.
But soon, more elementary school students in both counties could see full-time deputies at school thanks to $1.2 million grants each county's sheriff's office secured last week from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut last year that left 20 children and six adults dead prompted a national discussion on how to make schools safer.
In the wake of the massacre, a Tampa Police officer or sheriff's deputy was placed in each Hillsborough elementary school for the second half of last school year.
Earlier this year, the Hillsborough school board rejected a plan to spend more than $1 million out of the district's contingency fund to hire 130 additional security officers for elementary schools.
The new grant will be enough to cover the costs of 10 deputies for three years in both Hillsborough and Pasco.
The grant was given with the agreement that the sheriff's office and school district would foot the bill the fourth year, said David Friedberg, Hillsborough's school security chief.
After that, how those positions will be funded would be “up for discussion,” Friedberg said.
The cost of putting a deputy to work, including salary, benefits and equipment, is $110,000 to $120,000 per year in Hillsborough, he said.
Hillsborough had hoped for enough to pay 15 deputies and Pasco hoped for 14 plus a sheriff's sergeant to supervise. Both counties are now modifying their plans.
One option is to have each of the new deputies split time between two elementary schools, Friedberg said.
“The safer people feel, the more they learn, the more they are able to focus on learning,” he said. “That's the primary mission here.”
Hillsborough's new deputy positions will be advertised internally at the sheriff's office and new hires will be made to backfill the vacancies.
Jose Docobo, a deputy chief with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, said he hopes to have the new deputies stationed in elementary schools within a month or so.
“You want to put a seasoned deputy in there, so that's what we'll be doing over the next 30 days – selecting the right deputy for the schools and identifying which of the schools we want to address initially,” Docobo said.
Before it can be put into action, the grant will go before the school board for a final vote. The board will discuss school security at a workshop at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 9.
Hillsborough sheriff's deputy Kirk Beasley, who has worked as Eisenhower Middle School's resource deputy for three years, said he has watched the middle-schoolers become more comfortable around law enforcement officers if they are around one every day.
This will benefit younger students, too, he said.
“People don't have a lot of experience with law enforcement,” Beasley said. “The kids get so used to you. They would never do that on the street.”
Under Pasco's original proposal, the sheriff planned to assign seven of the officers to elementary schools, with each officer having duties at multiple schools within a geographic area.
In addition, the plan called for a second resource officer at Wiregrass Ranch High, which has more than 2,000 students; a K-9 officer; an emergency management specialist; and four school resource detectives who would investigate crimes at schools and help monitor students with Department of Juvenile Justice probation and diversion sanctions.
The sheriff's office is now reviewing its plan for how to allocate the positions, spokesman Doug Tobin said.
Additionally, the sheriff's office must still go before the Pasco County Commission for formal acceptance of the positions and its funding obligations before it can begin to implement the grant, Tobin said.
Tribune reporter Ronnie Blair contributed to this story.