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Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Miami-Dade Plan Expands Officer Jurisdiction

Miami-Dade Plan Expands Officer Jurisdiction

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Florida's Miami-Dade County district is a step closer to giving its school police officers the power to do something most of their colleagues elsewhere cannot: make arrests off campus. That proposal, however, has raised concerns about a possible shift in the officers' focus away from the schools and into the community.

The plan by the Miami-Dade school board to expand the jurisdiction of its school police force to areas near its schools may be enacted before the end of the school year, but many questions about how the program would run are yet to be answered.

A mutual-aid agreement between the district and local municipalities, which was approved by the state legislature for all districts in the state in 1996, gave school police officers the power to make arrests up to 1,000 feet from a school campus and give out traffic citations.

School board members had approved the plan last summer. But when administrators began working on needed guidelines for the school police force, they ran into a number of problems, which almost led the 347,000-student district to scrap the idea.

Among the issues the board members faced were setting the exact boundaries of the officers' jurisdiction and weighing whether the expansion would pull officers away from their duties on campus.

On the verge of killing the mutual-aid agreement earlier this month, board members revived it thanks to the persuasion of the school officers' union. They argued that without the plan, criminals on school property could elude arrest by simply leaving campus.

"The intention was to scrap the measure, but it is still alive," said Manty Sabates Morse, a member of the school board who has been pushing for the policy since the legislation passed 2½ years ago.

Roger Cuevas

Administrators' concerns about who would be left to watch over the schools when officers were tending to off-campus incidents were legitimate, Ms. Morse said. But, she added, the board now has asked Superintendent Roger Cuevas to work with officers on making the plan work.

Working Out the Details

Deputy Superintendent Henry C. Fraind is renegotiating the terms of the agreement so that officers would be responsible only for an offense that occurred both within 1,000 feet of a school and in their continual line of sight.

"Safety is so important," Mr. Fraind said. "But we don't want school police to have their hands full with the community."

"We will gain the ability to take full control of our borders," said Mr. Fraind, who plans to take the agreement to the board in March.

Although the use of police on school campuses is not new, many districts are now hiring men and women who are academy-trained or certified for school security--and those officers are doing more than locking doors or standing watch, said Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

Miami-Dade County, the nation's fourth-largest school district, currently has 134 armed school police officers and a school police chief--a force that costs the district $14 million annually. The officers guard 28 high schools and 51 middle schools, conduct investigations, and have the same policing powers as a regular city or county officer--but they deal only with school-related incidents. ("Cops on Campus," June 22, 1994.)

Benefits Questioned

Manty Sabates Morse

Both Ms. Morse and Mr. Fraind maintain that the mutual-aid agreement would not increase the district's spending on security beyond the current level. But others disagree.

Peter D. Blauvelt, the president of the National Alliance of School Safety, a College Park, Md.-based group that provides technical assistance on school security, argued that while the plan might not be more costly in dollars, it could carry a price in other terms.

He said he knew of no other district that had extended the powers of its police to the community.

Though there may be some benefit from having those officers in the community, Mr. Blauvelt said, the district could be opening itself to liability by taking responsibility for the behavior of students in an extended area.

And whatever the positive impact for the community, the schools could suffer, he said. "If officers are dealing with other issues, who's taking care of the school?" Mr. Blauvelt said.

Wolfgang Halbig, the director of school security in Seminole County, Fla., agreed.

"There are a lot of ramifications" for a program like this, said Mr. Halbig, who manages 37 officers in his 60,000-student district.

"[Dade] is such a big school district--just to go another step could create other problems for themselves," he said. "The officers could lose sight of what their role truly is."

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Page 6

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