School safety at AME

canine Anna Maria Elementary School entrance
The doors to Anna Maria Elementary School may be closed right now, but when the school year starts in August, over 400 students, staff members and teachers will walk the halls. - Kristin Swain | Sun

HOLMES BEACH – It may be summer, but a new school year approaches and Police Chief Bill Tokajer has a plan to keep Anna Maria Elementary School students and staff safe.

School Safety

When students re-enter AME in the fall, one of the first faces they’ll see is a familiar one – School Resource Officer Josh Fleischer.

Fleischer has been at the school for the last few years and is a full-time officer with the Holmes Beach Police Department. The HBPD receives a stipend from the Manatee County School Board to help fund the SRO program at the Island’s elementary school.

Just because school’s out doesn’t mean that Fleischer and Tokajer have been taking it easy this summer. Tokajer said a security survey was conducted at the school and certain measures are being put in place, or are already in place, to assist Fleischer in securing the campus. One of those measures is keeping exterior doors locked at all times to prevent unauthorized access to the school. Tokajer said the only door open during school hours is the main entrance and he’s petitioned the school board to install a push button lock system that would allow the school secretary or other front desk staff to verify the identity of the person at the door and push a button at the desk to allow entrance to the facility. Because of the small size of the school, he said the push button system would work well to limit people from entering the main building.

HBPD officers and school staff also are using the downtime to brush up on their training. Tokajer said HBPD officers are brushing up on their active shooter training with Bradenton police officers. HBPD officers also are conducting lockdown and active shooter drills with school staff on a regular basis.

K9 officers in schools

Both Tokajer and Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Dave Bristow agree that having canine officers in schools might not be the best bet for making schools safer for students.

Bristow said the Belgian Malinois dogs trained for the MCSO K9 division would have too much downtime to be effective in schools full time. Without an active situation occurring where the dogs can be helpful, there isn’t much for them to do. He said the K9 officers and their handlers could be of best use to Manatee County residents in other areas unless specifically needed to respond to an incident at the school.

canine ballistic vest
One canine officer shows off a new ballistic vest courtesy of a $14,000 donation from the BTLS Foundation, enough for vests to outfit all nine K9 officers serving with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. MCSO | Submitted

With nine K9 officers on staff, Bristow said the MSCO tries to keep at least one available during every busy shift. The canine officers apprehend suspects, search out drugs and find missing people, among other things.

While most of the dogs are purchased from breeders for the K9 unit, one of the MCSO canine officers came from more humble beginnings at Bishop Animal Shelter. Gia is a K9 officer assigned to the Crimes Against Juveniles division. She is specially trained to sniff out computer equipment and components. Though Gia is “very valuable” to her unit, Bristow said she’s a special case.

canine gia mcso
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office’s most famous canine officer, Gia, is a rescue dog from Bishop Animal Shelter trained to sniff out computer components. – Submitted | MCSO

He said there are certain personality and physical attributes K9 officers need to pass their training with their handler and be an asset to the department. Qualities include speed, agility, endurance and high intelligence. While he said rescue dogs are great animals, most of them are better suited for homes than police work.

Though the HBPD doesn’t have a canine program, Tokajer said it’s a concept that has been talked about, especially in regard to protecting AME students and staff. One of the issues with instituting the program is staff. Because of the small size of the department, Tokajer said he’d need the budget to hire more personnel for a K9 unit. He also agreed with Bristow that a rescue dog might not make it through the extensive training needed to become a police dog.

Tokajer said the problem of the canine officer’s temperament is twofold. A canine officer has to have the right temperament and focus to be a police dog. When they’re working, they’re on alert all the time. In a school full of young children, the dog’s training could be more of a liability than an asset for school resource officers.

If a student came through the doors with drugs or a gun and the police dog smelled it, Tokajer said the dog’s training would kick in and it would try to physically subdue the suspect student. If a student came up behind the canine officer and pulled its tail or made the dog feel in any way threatened, it could also lead to an incident. To put the dogs in the elementary school full time, students would have to be taught to not approach or try to touch the working canine officer.

Tokajer said K9 units are available to the HBPD through the MCSO and the Bradenton Police Department on an as-needed basis. He said he’s never called to have one of the units dispatched to the school.

“I think that what we need in the schools are trained police officers that are school resource officer trained as well that have the temperament to be around the children, that have the mindset of not just safety and security but also being the mentor and the first observation that these kids might have of a police officer,” Tokajer said. “You want them to be that mentor, that leader, somebody that can be a role model to these children. That doesn’t have to be a dog. I don’t see that as being a viable answer, having dogs in the school protecting the children.”

The Guardian program

With Fleischer on site during school hours, the security plan at AME meets the state’s requirement for one SRO or armed security officer to be on campus, meaning the school won’t be participating in the new Guardian program.

The state-instituted program is designed for schools that need an alternative to a law enforcement SRO. Under the new program, civilians are brought in as full-time school staff and trained to be armed security for the campus. A part of the program would also allow teachers in schools to be armed. Guardians undergo four weeks of security and gun safety training along with psychological evaluations.

Tokajer said implementing the Guardian program at AME is unnecessary and with a trained SRO on staff, he feels good about the school’s security going into the next school year.