ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Park High School teacher Richard Cross doesn’t make a habit of crying in front of his high school students, let alone in a room full of 500 of them.
Yet Cross couldn’t hold back Tuesday amid his students’ “awes” and applause as he described how his graduating seniors turned a classroom project into a legislative victory.
A group of 18 students in the Criminal Justice Program, spearheaded by senior Lauren Lofton, was recognized by the school and the Pinellas County School Board for designing a state license plate, approved by the Legislature this month, to honor law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty — the first in the state.
“They truly are my heroes because they stuck it out after getting the door slammed in their face over and over again,” said Cross, a government teacher. “It’s been an incredibly hard-fought, emotional journey and I’m just so proud of them.”
Operation 10-24, named after the police code for an officer in distress, began three years ago after three St. Petersburg police officers were killed in the line of duty. The students were sophomores then, but all struggled with the emotional loss of officers in their chosen field.
Cross encouraged them to design a specialty license plate honoring the fallen officers. The students voted on their favorite design, a simple blue and black stripe intersecting near a Florida officer’s badge. On the bottom of senior Kaitlyn Veisz’s design is a single phrase that stuck with the class after watching video of a Polk County police officer’s funeral: “A man remembered never dies.”
Even though there was a moratorium on specialty license plates at the time — Florida offers more than 100 variations — the students forged ahead to persuade legislators to drop the moratorium a year early. With the help of Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Reps. Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg and Ed Hooper of Clearwater, a bill was filed to create the license plate. After three years, three speaking engagements before the Florida Senate and countless events throughout her community, Lofton is seeing her efforts pay off.
“They said, ‘You taught us how to change the law, let’s do it,’” Cross said. “And I told them it would be like David and Goliath. But we worked on it in class, they made hundreds of calls and emails, they got legislators behind them and they did it.”
Now the students are awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature of approval on their license plate bill. If it’s approved, they must secure 1,000 pre-orders for the plate before it goes into production, Cross said. Pre-orders must be made at Department of Motor Vehicles offices after Oct. 1. Money from sales of the $25 plate will go to the nonprofit Police and Kids Foundation.