CLEARWATER - Clearwater's children may see less police presence in their elementary and high schools courtesy of recent decisions made by the Clearwater City Council.
During their May 3rd meeting, the council approved a list of service cuts totaling $7.5-million, this in anticipation of a reduction in property tax revenues that the state legislature will debate next week. Included in those cuts was the Clearwater Police Department's Officer Friendly program.
Officer Friendly has been serving Elementary Schools since 1971, according to CPD Chief Sid Klein. The program, employing two police officers, serves 18 public and four private schools. A total of 897 classes on safety, laws and the consequences of crime are taught each year.
Responding to questions this week, Klein said, "The Officer Friendly program is responsible for 8,000 student contacts per year." For many of Clearwater's young people, those contacts are their first with a police officer, and their first impressions can shape their attitudes for the rest of their lives.
Louise Crowder-Neri, Principal of North Ward Elementary School, was surprised to hear that Clearwater was planning to eliminate the Officer Friendly program. She said, "For children that come from high-crime areas, it's important that they see police officers as friends who are kind, caring and supportive. I would really hate to lose the program for all the students, but especially for those who live with crime and poverty."
The cuts to Clearwater's Officer friendly program amount to a savings of $125,720 per year.
At the other end of the public education spectrum, Clearwater has been providing two School Resource Officers (SRO) at both Clearwater and Countryside High Schools during the school year. At their May 3rd meeting, CPD's SRO program was on the list of budget cuts proposed by City Manager Bill Horne, but the Council decided to pull it from the list.
The SRO program is an extension of CPD's Community Policing concept, which immerses officers in the neighborhoods that they patrol and encourages them to know, understand and empathize with members of the community. With populations exceeding 2000 students, both Clearwater and Countryside High Schools are communities that fit the Community Policing concept.
But before and after school, that student population spills out to the surrounding community, and that is where the integration of the SRO program into CPD has proven to be effective in the city's overall crime prevention effort. "One of the biggest values is the quality and quantity of criminal intelligence we collect in the schools," Klein said, "It allows us to prevent crimes that would otherwise be committed in the surrounding community."
Operating the SRO program from within the Clearwater Police Department also prevents criminal activity in the surrounding community from penetrating the schools. "They become aware of situations in the community and take action in the school to thwart problems before they arise," said Countryside High School Assistant Principal Cynthia Saginario.
An example of the effectiveness of CPD's SRO program occurred in 2006, when the suspicious behavior of a Clearwater High School sophomore came to the attention of School Resource Officer Thomas Dawe. CPD spokesman Wayne Shelor said that Dawe's investigation expanded into a search of the student's home by other CPD officers, who discovered weapons and a video of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. The student was arrested and, according to Chief Klein, a potential Columbine-like disaster was averted.
Despite its benefits, the Clearwater City Council opted to not extend its SRO contract with Pinellas County Schools during their June 4th work session.
Klein had asked the Council to continue funding the SRO operation for the 2007/08 and 2008/09 fiscal years. The cost of the program would be $251,440 in 2007/08 and $268,040 in 2008/09, but that would be offset by reimbursements by the School Board of $162,651.20 and $169,157.28 in the two years, covering more than 63-percent of the cost.
Councilmember George Cretekos observed, "Everything we're hearing from Tallahassee is that the school boards are not going to be capped and aren't going to have the same kind of cuts that we're being faced with."
"Should we not go to the School Board now and ask them to reimburse us more money?" Cretekos asked. "I think it's something that the School Board ought to pick up," Mayor Frank Hibbard responded.
Perhaps starting the first of what might become many inter-governmental squabbles stimulated by budget cuts, the Council agreed to have the SRO contract rewritten to cover only the current fiscal year, effectively terminating CPD's SRO operation on 2007/08 and 2008/09 unless the Pinellas County School Board funds the program in its entirety.
The continued funding of Clearwater's SRO program will be discussed during tonight's City Council meeting at 6 p.m at City Hall.