MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. - School security has been a topic on most parents' minds, so people living in one South Florida school district were surprised to learn there are people living rent-free on school campuses as part of a program they believed ended years ago.
Suzette Lopez said she and other parents first became curious about a trailer home on Vineland K-8 Center's campus in southwest Miami-Dade County several years ago when her boys were students there.
Lopez said she was part of a parents group looking to make school security improvements after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
"We noticed the trailer, and we started asking questions," Lopez told Local 10 News reporter Amy Viteri. "And back then the principal had no relationship and she was like, ‘I really don't know anything.'"
The trailer program dates back to the late 1970's when it started as a pilot program aimed at preventing vandalism at Miami-Dade Public Schools. In 1980 school board members recommended "police families occupy mobile homes on school properties."
The plan was to have officers live there with free rent and utilities in exchange for officers providing their own mobile homes and completing routine logs and reports of activity on campus.
"The idea was to have somebody on campus who would be there at night who would be there to walk around see what's happening," explained Larry Feldman, the school board representative for Vineland's district.
In 2002 a memo from Miami-Dade Schools Police said the program was being discontinued for "not meeting expectations." The district superintendent at the time and other officials were copied on the memo.
One of the memos went to Ric Thomas, at that time a trooper for the Florida Highway Patrol who was living at Vineland. The notice gave him until April of 2004 to vacate the property. More than a decade later, Thomas, now retired from FHP, is still living there,
"Apparently there's no contract with him at all. He provides no service to the school district," Lopez said.
She grew concerned after years of emails to the district and even county officials trying to get information about the status of the program. No one, she says, could provide her information about
Thomas' role on school property or whether he was supposed to even be there.
"It's a security issue especially after Marjorie Stoneman Douglas," she said, "We don't know who's coming in and out of that house. We don't know if he leases out the property."
A valid concern in light of a 2003 article published in the Miami Herald detailing the reasons for the program's cancellation. One of the issues mentioned in the report: A trooper had rented his home to someone who was not a member of law enforcement.
Local 10 News was not able to reach Thomas to speak with him directly but during one visit observed a man going into the property who told Viteri he was not Thomas, but would not identify himself or what he was doing at the property.
Lopez said she was only seeking information to ensure the district was aware of the living situation and a contract outlining terms existed.
She expressed concerns about the condition of the trailer, which sits just feet away from classrooms. The windows are covered with hurricane shutters and some described it as an eyesore.
"I think there was miscommunication about whether this program was still in effect or was it not in effect," said the district's Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego. "And after researching we found out that yeah, the board had never terminated."
Without a formal school board vote, Gonzalez-Diego says the program never officially ended. But Local 10 News found conflicting accounts after speaking with one officer who served in the program for 13 years. He said the program did end and he was ordered to leave school property back in 2004, losing his trailer in the process.
The officer who asked not to be identified as he still works in law enforcement said this: "They told me two things: One, the program was ending and two, they needed the lot. I was told to leave period. The guys that are left in the schools fell through the cracks where they probably never went back and visited that issue."
Feldman who has been working to get answers to Suzette Lopez's questions said the program started well before his time on the board.
"Something either was dropped, the ball was dropped or something happened," Feldman said.
He said the district is now working to get new lease agreements with the few people who still live on school properties. The new agreements outline requirements such as reports, communication with school principals and tenants will now have to pay their own utility fees.
"From this point forward, it can be done right and it will be done right," Feldman said.
The district was unable to provide copies of any prior contracts outlining agreements with those living on school properties. Spokesperson Gonzalez-Diego said four tenants have signed new lease agreements, which are for a one-year time periods.
At last check, former Trooper Ric Thomas who lives at Vineland had not yet signed a lease, and the district was still negotiating with him. The district said it could not provide the school locations where officers currently live on campus to protect their privacy.
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