Campus Life

Be it ever so humble: The Searses at home on school grounds
Bob Whitby

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.

Sears, by the way, does own a gun. And he's pretty sure there's a bottle of wine or liquor around the trailer somewhere, "though I'm not a drinker," he says.

In all those years out back, he recalls only a handful of incidents in which he had to thwart chicanery. He's caught kids on campus after hours and had to run them off. There was the time a few years ago when a guy had climbed completely inside the engine compartment of a school district pickup truck and was stripping off parts. And there was the time members of the senior class, in a fit of adolescent pique, picked up garbage from all over Plantation and dumped it on the front steps of the school at 3 a.m. on a Sunday. "The seniors were driving by, cursing me for picking it up. If I [had] had my gun with me then, I would have shot out their tires," he says with a wry grin.

Quinones, the janitor who lives at Norcrest, is also a ROCS participant, though his time in the program is all but over. He got in hot water by using a computer belonging to the school district and was kicked out of the ROCS program as a disciplinary measure. It seems he didn't go through the proper channels to take the machine home, and now he has to leave the school grounds in a few weeks. His 1400-square-foot doublewide is stacked high with boxes as he prepares to vacate. He's hoping to sell the trailer to his replacement, because he doesn't have enough money to move it.

Nonetheless Quinones has nothing but praise for the program that provided him, his wife, and two daughters a home for the last ten years. "I will miss it," he says. "I know the people [at Norcrest]; I know a lot of the neighbors. It's an excellent program."

In his decade on school grounds, the school has never been burglarized, he says with pride. There was one incident a few years back, though, when Quinones told three boys playing basketball on school grounds after dark that they had to leave. The boys, whom Quinones later discovered were teenagers, turned on him and beat him badly. "I was bruised for a couple months," he says.

In accordance with school board policy, Quinones will be replaced by a law-enforcement officer when he leaves. Sears may not be replaced at all should the school decide it needs the room for more classrooms. (South Plantation is one of the district's smallest campuses.)

Either way, he's glad to be getting out of the program. In addition to the more extensive background checks and the preference for police, Sears says he's heard talk of not allowing residents to keep dogs (potential liability), and a stipulation that they must consent to property searches (security measure). "I'm glad I won't be here to put up with some of the changes."

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