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Duval Disqualifies A Fourth Of Applicants To Be Armed Safety Assistants; JSO Helps Fill Gaps

Students at Jacksonville's Lee High School switch classes.
Lindsey Kilbride
Students at Jacksonville's Lee High School switch classes.

By law, all schools in Florida are required to employ a sworn officer or trained guard by the first day. With not enough guards hired, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is assigning officers to fill the gap.

Duval County already has sworn officers in middle and high schools, but school board members elected to hire what it’s calling school safety assistants — guards armed and trained to intervene in the case of a school shooter — for its elementary schools.

The district needed to hire 105 safety assistants over the summer, but as of the first day of school on Monday, just 24 had started work. In the meantime JSO sent 130 officers to work in Duval’s elementary schools as well as some charter schools.  

“No individuals will be pulled from the streets or from the investigative units during their normal hours,” said JSO Public Information Officer Christian Hancock. “On days off, individuals will be pulled in to work the schools in an overtime capacity.”

The district declined to say which schools would have officers and which will have the trained guards.

Duval County School Police Director Micheal Edwards said he’s received about 400 safety assistant applications, although some of them are duplicates, so he didn’t have a true number of applicants.

The assistants are trained through the firearm-heavy Guardian program administered by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in addition to more training from the school police department, adding up to about 200 hours. They start out making $12.50 an hour with summers off.

Edwards said 112 applicants were disqualified for various reasons, including failed drug tests or background investigations.

Duval Superintendent Diana Greene said she’s comfortable with the plan because quality hires matter.

“The fact that we are vetting these individuals very critically is what’s most important to ensure that once we hire a school safety assistant we have a high level of confidence that this person can perform the duties of that position,” she said.

Fifteen applicants were disqualified after a psychological examination. Edwards said that entails the applicant’s answering about 950 questions and then sitting with a psychiatrist to go over their answers.

The school district decided to also require applicants to take polygraph tests, which disqualified 20 of them. Edwards said one disqualified candidate admitted to recently taking someone to buy drugs, and another confessed to watching pornography daily.

The effectiveness of polygraph tests is controversial,as someone could be nervous and fail the test.

Safety assistant training classes are scheduled through January. Until Duval’s elementary schools are fully staffed with safety assistants, JSO will fill in with sworn officers.

Neither JSO nor the school district know yet how much bridging the gap will cost.

And Duval isn’t the only county with a shortage. Miami-Dade, filling all its schools with sworn officers, has 60 unfilled schools, Edwards said. And Hillsborough County, using a guardian program similar to Duval’s, also has a gap.

Many school boards including Duval’s wanted to use sworn officers only but found it would be too expensive. Duval estimates it would cost more than $10 million, but the state gave the district just $3.6 million for staffing schools.

Duval estimated it would end up paying about $800,000 over the state allocation before accounting for the JSO overtime.

Brendan Rivers contributed to this story.

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Lindsey Kilbride joined WJCT News in 2015 after completing the radio documentary program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.