PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — As students head back to campuses in Palm Beach County, every school now has a school district police officer there to protect them.
"We’ve reached a big milestone here," said School District Police Chief Frank Kitzerow. "For the first time in our history, we have a school police officer at every single campus in the district."
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Back To School
Chief Kitzerow said there are a lot of moving parts to keep all 179 schools in the district safe.
"Prevention, intervention, and diversion is our key components," Chief Kitzerow said. "Having an officer on every campus makes our processes even more efficient because now we can see it through the lens of school-based policing and it takes us to a whole new level."
Chief Kitzerow said they have people new to law enforcement, as well as veterans coming to the department. That includes former police chiefs, deputy chiefs, SWAT Team members, and Palm Beach County deputies.
"I feel very fortunate that they are choosing us," Chief Kitzerow said. "You look at the people we’ve hired. Over the past few years, these are very experienced people, many of them."
Chief Kitzerow added that his officers are all there for one sole purpose: to protect students and staff.
"They’re choosing us, and they’re choosing us for a couple reasons. Number one, I think they like what they see in our department. But number two, they want to help and they want to be in there," Chief Kitzerow said. "When you think about what we ask these officers to do, it's really quite remarkable. If a catastrophic event were to occur, they’re going to go down that hall by themselves. That’s a pretty tall order, and I’m so proud of the people who are willing to put themselves into that situation."
The Palm Beach County School District Police Department has hired more than 150 new officers in the past two years.
"It's more than seeing an officer at a bus loop. There are more moving parts in there that we have to make sure we fill because the most visible thing you see is at the school. But it's all the support for school safety we have to cover as well," Chief Kitzerow said.
The police said that while they no longer have deputies and officers from other agencies on school campuses, they still have strong working relationships with all local agencies and work together whenever necessary.
COVID-19 has brought another layer to school safety as well.
"Just keeping schools safe in the traditional sense in working through the threat assessments, intervention, prevention, diversion," Chief Kitzerow said. "Having a really significant toolbox if you need to respond. That in itself is challenging and time consuming, but now were working on a whole new front with COVID-19 and keeping our officers safe and students safe. It adds a lot to the job, you know? It was busy before. Now it is really incredibly busy."
Chief Kitzerow said there are now about 275 officers in the department and they still have more hiring to go.
One of the newest members of the force is Officer Ryan Kirstein.
"It feels great," said Kirstein. "I'm just happy to serve my community in whichever way I can."
Kirstein spent a year working in law enforcement in Broward County before becoming a fourth grade math and science teacher for the School District of Palm Beach County. Now he's trading his Royal Palm Beach classroom for a patrol car.
Kirstein said the deadly mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018 changed his perspective.
"After Stoneman Douglas, I just felt that safety was a priority for students and I could best help here," Kirstein said.
Kirstein is currently training at Coral Sunset Elementary School in Boca Raton, and then will move on to train at middle and high schools in the county before he is assigned his own campus to watch over.
Kirstein knows the impact he can make in his new role.
"I’m not teaching multiplication and division anymore, but I’m still a positive influence in their life and just doing the right thing. Now every student has the ability to feel safe and secure when they go to school every day," Kirstein said. "After about a year thinking about it, you know, teaching was a great job and a great profession, I enjoyed it, but at the same time I can help students in other ways besides just being in the classroom. So I thought this was a better choice for my career."
Kirstein said he has a young daughter who is not in school year, but will be someday.
"It makes me feel safe as a parent, you know, and I hope every other parent feels the same way," Kirstein said.
Kirstein added he has loved seeing the kids back on campus.
"I am here for the students and staff and school community as a whole, so anyone who walks on my campus, that’s my responsibility," Kirstein said. "So I just want to make them safe and secure. That Monday morning smile, you can’t beat that."
To learn more about the Palm Beach County School District Police Department, click here.