Tarphanesha Phillips said she doesn’t take umbrage with the agreement between the Alachua County School Board and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office for this school year. The $894,590 deal struck between the two entities isn’t an issue for her because, she said, the safety of the students is her No. 1 priority.
“But we have concerns too, on the bus,” Phillips said. “When you guys are thinking about how you’re going to put safety in the schools, please think about the bus drivers.”
Phillips, 46, is a public school bus driver for Alachua County. Among others, she transports students to and from Meadowbrook Elementary and Eastside High Schools. She said one of the biggest issues she sees is the lack of protection for both students and bus drivers en route to and from schools.
The sheriff’s office is attempting to address Phillips’ and her union’s concerns using some of the money from the deal. Sheriff Sadie Darnell said during a July school board meeting that the sheriff’s office had agreed to set aside funding to provide for the training of two K-9 units, which would search buses for firearms and ammunition. Sheriff Darnell said the dogs would not be there to search for drugs or other contraband.
Phillips said she was still uncertain on how the sheriff’s office would implement such a strategy for a county that uses dozens of school buses daily with just two dogs.
Jayson Levy, a Lieutenant with the ACSO in the Juvenile Relations Bureau, said that he couldn’t divulge how the K-9 units would be dispatched for fear of students figuring out a work-around for the searches. Still, he did have a suggestion for bus drivers who don’t feel much safer with the new policy.
“We’re a small percentage in the community for what we’re doing,” Levy said. “But our partners can help us: teachers, deans, principals, bus drivers, aides on the buses, Crime Stoppers tip line, anonymous tips. But the bus drivers specifically, if they have a concern or issue, we’re a phone call away.”
One of the handlers for the new “gun dogs” is Deputy Craig Smith. He’s been with the sheriff’s office since 2010. Smith said he got the opportunity to work with his new K-9 unit, Gauge, beginning in April. The two dogs — Gauge and Ruger — undergo training four days a week and spend nearly every hour of every day with their handlers.
Gauge is a 2-year-old German-Belgian mix. Smith said his new K-9 partner has interrupted his family life with his wife and two children. But Smith said he wouldn’t change his mind if he had to make the decision again.
“It’s rewarding, seeing what kind of a dog he was when he was first brought to me and having no obedience training, not knowing anything about what he was going to be doing in the future when we start working at schools,” Smith said. “The kind of training and the effort that we put into it and the dedication, it’s very rewarding and it’s something that you have to really want to do.”
School in Alachua County began on Monday. About 200 school buses transport children to and from school in the area. For Phillips and her coworkers, the threat of a student bringing a weapon onto a bus is still a real danger. Phillips expressed her concern over the ability of two K-9 units being able to keep dangerous situations from happening.
She said when an Eastside High School student was caught with a handgun in their backpack in February, she had driven that student to the school earlier in the day.
“I didn’t know it,” she said. “We’re transporting most of these kids to the school, and they’re having weapons in the backpacks, and us as bus drivers don’t know it. We’ve been attacked and all by these students.”