School Resource Deputy James Hardy at an event with "his" kids - Photo Courtesy of Deputy Hardy

A Message From Your Sheriff

This column was written in response to a column printed on October 6, 2019, in the Gainesville Sun by University of Florida Associate Professor F. Chris Curran, “Arrests show perils of putting police in primary schools.” The Sheriff’s response was shared by the Gainesville Sun on October 23rd.

When law enforcement actions such as the recent arrests of two 6-year-olds in Orlando take place on campuses, we all take a step back and reflect on what our own policies and practices are. Fortunately, for the citizens of Alachua County, we have long practiced restraint and arrest alternatives in our schools backed up by policies outlining alternatives, especially for young children.

The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office School Resource Deputy Program has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with the Alachua County School Board and has had school resource deputies assigned to our local middle and high schools for quite some time. In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, we took a proactive stance and staffed all of our elementary schools long before it was state mandated.

Our resource deputies must pass a rigorous selection and training process before they are assigned to the schools. Every deputy has been trained in: procedural justice, implicit bias, trauma-informed response, adverse childhood experiences and their effect on adolescent brain development, Teen Court procedures, arrest alternatives, crisis intervention training and deescalation. In addition to our school resource deputies, all current law enforcement deputies and new hires receive the same training and updates as they become available.

The past practice of “arrest is best” is an antiquated and unproductive approach to say the least. Our deputies are trained and backed by polices to make sure we are finding alternatives to criminal charges when appropriate. We changed our youth arrest procedures to include no criminal charges for youth under the age of 12 without a myriad of review and direct consultation with the State Attorney.

To quote our youth arrest policy: “All Deputy Sheriffs and especially our School Resource Deputies will have a working knowledge and understanding of DMC (Disproportionate Minority Contact) and R.E.D. (Racial and Ethnic Disparity) The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office policing strategy includes utilizing arrests and sworn complaints as a last resort.

“Alternatives such as civil citations and discretion such as restorative diversion programs will be given the highest priority in lieu of arresting/charging a child. All juvenile arrests and sworn complaints will be based on the benefit to the youth and shall be thoroughly evaluated by a supervisor.”

The primary function of the school resource deputy is, of course, the safety and security of the campuses. While we do take part in the disciplinary team, we are not the first step in the tiered system.

The School Board has effective policies in place that allow for kids to frankly “be kids and make silly kid mistakes” without the fear of going to jail. Progressive school discipline is first and the school resource deputy is the last resort. The school resource deputy intervention rarely results in any criminal charges and more often than not is resolved through mentoring and service referrals.

In the 2017-2018 school year, the ACSO documented 390 case reports with only 3% resulting in criminal sanctions. The majority of those cases were for major offenses such as weapons possession or serious injuries. For the past two school years, no elementary school children were arrested and no one under 13 received criminal sanctions.

This does not mean, however, that we are just turning a blind eye. Using restorative justice practices, we are holding kids accountable for their actions, making victims whole again and teaching them alternatives. Since 2012 we have reduced our arrests for all kids by 65%. These practices are encouraged with adult offenders as well and have reduced arrests by 43%.

The role of the school resource deputy is multifaceted. They must be able to move through the role of warrior and guardian as needed. They are a crucial part of the staff at the school and, most importantly, they belong to every child on their campuses. Ask them how many kids they have and they often respond with the school population number plus the ones in their homes.

As echoed by the thousands of kids who said “That’s my deputy!” at the Homecoming Parade as the Sheriff’s Office school resource deputies float went by, the impact of the these deputies on their children’s lives cannot be measured in statistics. We will stand guard, at our rightful place, at all of our schools.