SRO secondary

School Resource Officer Casey Phillips walks the halls of Rock Crusher Elementary School during the 2017-2018 school year.

The lack of a contract with the sheriff’s office doesn’t mean there won’t be deputies in Citrus schools when students arrive to begin the new school year next week, but it does bring the Citrus County School District Police Department closer to reality.

“We got word today from our attorney that (Sheriff Mike Prendergast) wasn’t going to sign the contract as it is, so we asked him to clarify what was going to happen on Monday, and we got clarification that they plan on being in every school,” said school district Assistant Superintendent Mike Mullen Wednesday evening. “So that’s a positive thing."

“Everybody involved in this cares a great deal about the safety of kids, and nobody’s trying to put that in jeopardy,” Mullen continued. “It’s about the contract and language the county wants and the boards agreed to and language the sheriff wants. It’s a contractual thing — but as far as providing security for the kids, that’s not a question. That’s going to happen.”

The contract language in question consists of two items. One would, in Prendergast’s interpretation, prevent him from applying for grants or other outside funding for the school resource officer (SRO) program, because it requires any additional money to be split between the county and the school district. Both of those agencies would have provided funding to the sheriff’s office under the contract.

The other item would require detailed quarterly reports of how money dedicated to the SRO program is spent — which the sheriff eventually agreed to — as well as an annual audit of the SRO program’s funds “if determined necessary by any party.” Prendergast objected to the possibility of that audit, on the grounds that his agency is already subject to an annual audit.

Without that contract, the school district will continue down the road toward creating a Citrus County School District Police Department.

“None of us prefer having our own police force and having to go that route,” Mullen said. “But we have a mandate to meet, and if that’s the only mechanism by which we can meet it, we have to go forward and do it.”

That mandate, part of Senate Bill (SB) 7026, became law after the slayings of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County in February. It requires that an armed law enforcement agent or “school guardian” be on each public school campus in Florida.

“We’ve sent in the paperwork and are working on going through the process to get approval to start our own law enforcement agency,” Mullen said. He acknowledged that the process could take some time, and that once the district hires a chief of police, a more nuanced plan will take shape. A discussion of and vote on job descriptions for that police chief and for an officer position are on the agenda for a school board meeting Tuesday, Aug. 14.

“Once we hire a chief of police, who naturally will be somebody with law-enforcement experience, we’ll be able to put a better timeframe together,” he said. “In the interim, we will have law enforcement on our campuses. And if it’s not the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, if they decide not to do that, we’re prepared with another agency to bring law enforcement in to fill that need.”

The district is already working with that agency to provide law enforcement coverage for after-school events, Mullen said.

“We were notified today that they won’t be covering athletic events and those kinds of things, but they’ll be on campuses during the school day,” he explained. “We’ll work with a different agency to have coverage of those extracurriculars. We’re working with another group that hires off-duty officers, and we’ll provide for security.”

Without a contract with the sheriff’s office, the school district will likely keep much or all of the money provided by the state for SROs and other school-safety expenses.

“If we’re going to provide the level of security ourselves,” Mullen said, “it would be our position that that money would be going to our own police force.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Carly Zervis at 352-564-2925 or carly.zervis@chronicleonline.com.

(2) comments

Way past time for the Sheriff to be tossed from office next election. He answers to the taxpayers and it appears he doesn't like that.

The Sheriff needs to remember who elected him and who he answers to. Not showing up for the meeting was not a good move on his part, now refusing to sign the contract...... 2020 can't get here soon enough.

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