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Clay County School Board Approves Its Own School Police Department

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Clay County expects to have its own school police department by the next school year and not renew the district’s contract with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office’s, a decision some parents in the community disagreed with. 

The Clay County School Board reviewed five school safety options at its Feb. 7 school board meeting. After nearly two hours of debate, the school board chose option B, which would allow for its’ contract with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office to expire and create it’s own school police department. By the end of the next school year, officers working exclusively for the school board will replace all current school resource officers (SROs) and school safety officers (SSOs) employed by the Clay County Sheriff’s Office.

The plan includes hiring a chief, two lieutenants, four sergeants, 36 police officers, three relief officers and one detective for 41 schools. Kenneth Wagner, a former lieutenant with the sheriff’s office and head of the school resource officer program in Clay County for the past eight years, has already been appointed as Chief of Police by Superintendent Addison Davis.

The decision to initiate a Clay County school police department left many in the community concerned. Nine parents questioned the decision at the Feb. 26 special school board meeting asked why the school board was hurrying the process.

“If they do come in cheaper than the sheriff, O.K., fine,” Misty Mason said. “But why the rush?”

Ashley Gilhousen, the sole school board member who voted against Option B, also expressed concern.

“I voiced that my preference was we elect to have the sheriff’s deputies cover our schools and Green Cove police and Orange Park police within their jurisdictions,” Gilhousen said at the Feb. 26 meeting. “That continues to be my preference today.  Never, ever was I comfortable with starting our own police force in the fall of this year.”

Following the mass shooting in Parkland last year, the state of Florida passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, requiring armed guards at every school and the option to adopt the Guardian program. In response, Clay County School Board placed 12 student resource officers from the Clay County Sheriff Office in junior high and high schools. The remaining 29 elementary schools used school safety officers.

A school resource officer is a certified law enforcement officer employed by the local police department. A school safety officer is a certified law enforcement officer employed by the local school district.

“It was the only affordable thing we could do,” said Janice Kerekes, vice chairman on the Clay County School Board.

Clay County voters approved an additional $1 million of ad valorem millage tax in August 2018 to provide more funding for school safety and security. The millage increased from $6.43 to $7.43 per $1,000 of property. The 1.0 millage tax increase will generate about $10 million annually for the school district.

“One year ago the four of us agreed that the best we could do for our kids would be to put a sheriff deputy at all of our schools.  But we couldn’t afford it,” Gilhousen said in the Feb. 7 meeting.

The school board can now afford it, and yet it is not even being treated as an option, she said. 

“I think this whole plan is being rushed into existence,” Clay County parent Jason Young said.  “I also think another police entity is unnecessary when you already had a division for schools already established inside the CCSO” (Clay Couty School Board).

Kerekes says the school board made the right decision.

“We are following the law,” Kerekes said. “We’re creating our own police department, where we’ll actually have a trained certified law enforcement officer at every school, and we are being fiscally responsible.” 

Florida Department of Law Enforcement approved on March 12 the school board’s plan to create the Clay County School Police Department.  

“The school district is well within their rights to stand up a police department,” Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels said. “The only issue I had with it was they’re trying to do it too fast.”    

Kerekes said posting a school officer at every Clay County public school gives the school board greater control over security and allows it to direct officers’ movements.

Not everyone in the community disagrees with the board’s decision. Cris Dotson said he is proud of how Clay County handled the safety issue and the budget.

“Why would anybody in Clay County be upset that we have police in our schools,” Dotson said.  “They’re there for the protection of our children. Who cares how much it cost?”  

Kerekes said the new department’s jurisdiction does not end at the curb. The district has a local agreement between the county and surrounding townships that allows for its officers to serve a warrant, conduct home checks or investigate parents if needed.

The new police department will transition into the schools Oct. 1, after the existing contract with Clay County Sheriff’s Office expires. 

Sheriff Daniels said there is nothing preventing his deputies from entering school grounds or interacting with the students they have already built relationships with.  

The school board’s police department and sheriff’s office want the same thing, he said. Keep the kids safe.

About Selina Scott

Selina is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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