Campus Life

Paul and Betty Sears live in a trailer behind South Plantation High. And you, dear taxpayer, are footing the bill.

It's been 16 years since Paul and Betty Sears moved into their trailer behind South Plantation High School. And they've been good years. Paul's commute is among the shortest in all of South Florida -- he's the head facilities person at the high school -- and the living arrangement has allowed him to save enough money to retire early at age 62, to pay himself out of debt, and to buy a home in Williamsburg, Kentucky, where he and Betty will spend their golden years.

This enviable financial situation is courtesy of the taxpayers of Broward County, who subsidize the Sears and 41 other individuals and families living on school grounds around the county through the Resident on Campus Security program, or ROCS. It's a pretty sweet deal. Residents get a rent-free spot to park their trailers and no-cost utilities (except for phone and cable). All they have to do in return is be warm bodies on campus to deter vandals, thieves, and other undesirables and to make spot checks for trespassers and unlocked doors.

ROCS goes back to the early '80s, which means it predates the current school board and the district's security people who oversee it. In fact it's difficult to find anybody who can give hard details about when the program began and its original intent. No one at the school district's Special Investigative Unit could give much in the way of background, a fact Chief Eddie Hardy gruffly relays after a half-dozen or more phone calls to his office. "You can call me 15 times and I'm not going to return your calls," Hardy says over the phone. "I've got more important things to take care of."

But if no one seems to know where ROCS has been, school board members are suddenly concerned about where it's going. In a July meeting, the board got in a minor tiff over ROCS, wondering on the record exactly who these live-ins are, whether they have any law-enforcement training, and how much the district knows about them. In the post-Littleton world of school board politics, no potential security risk can go uninvestigated.

Of the 42 ROCS participants, only four are neither law-enforcement officers nor school security personnel: Sears at South Plantation; Fermin Quinones, a janitor who lives at Norcrest Elementary in Pompano Beach; Richard Gaeta, a school board employee who lives at Riverglades Elementary in Parkland; and David Damore, a painter living at Atlantic Vocational in Coconut Creek. School board member Paul Eichner, who raised the ROCS issue, thinks that's four too many. "I wanted to know why we had non-law-enforcement personnel there if the intent is security," he says. Eichner also believes that everyone living on a campus should have to pass a background check, including family members living with ROCS participants. "For all you know you could potentially -- I am sure we don't -- we could have a child molester living on campus who we have not checked out, and I think we have an obligation," he said at the July board meeting.

The background checks are not happening yet, though the board agreed in July that they should begin soon. Such checks will impose a new formality on a program that has heretofore been pretty informal. And they'll raise questions that just haven't come up before, like what to do if someone's wife or brother, living on school grounds with a ROCS participant, has something in her or his past that doesn't sit well with school officials.

As the ROCS participant with the most seniority, Sears says that cops, most of whom don't work at the schools where they live, aren't necessarily the best tenants. In fact he thinks school employees do a better job. "You know the school personnel, and you know the building. You know the students who are going to be here after school for sports, you know who belongs here and who doesn't."

Sears knew a good deal when he saw one, so in 1983 when South Plantation High's principal was looking for someone to take the place of a ROCS participant (the district's first) who had moved on, Sears signed up. Not wanting to invest a lot of money because "I wasn't sure the program would go," he bought a trailer for $3000 and put it on the site. A few years later, he upgraded to the 14-by-70-foot trailer that's been home ever since.

If it weren't for the noise of buses idling ten yards from the front door, you'd be hard pressed to notice that the trailer is even on school grounds. (Yes, the school itself is only yards away, but you have to walk around hedges to see it.) The Searses enjoy all the amenities of home, including a screened porch with a few screens missing, an outdoor hot tub, and assorted bikes, grills, and coolers scattered around. There's even a cage that holds six lovebirds and a deferential cocker spaniel named Shadow, the watchman's watchdog. It's a comfortable, lived-in home, and the Sears are friendly, accommodating people. "We've thrown some pretty good parties here over the years," says Paul.

The City of Plantation wasn't thrilled about their arrival, he recalls. Initially they didn't want the trailer within city limits at all. Then they objected to allowing the Searses to possess alcohol or firearms. City officials capitulated on both counts, thanks to a strong character reference from the school principal, but they did dictate that the trailer not be visible from either Peters Road or SW 54th Avenue. That's why the Sears are tucked way in the back of the property, behind the parking lots and the practice field.

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