Four and a half years after Parkland and two and a half months after Uvalde, some state leaders are convinced that more armed security are needed in schools.
The leaders of the Department of Education and a state safety commission said Tuesday that a major priority will be to find ways to expand the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which trains school employees to use guns in the event of a school shooting. The program is named after a coach and unarmed security monitor who was one of 17 killed in the Parkland shooting.
The discussion happened at the latest meeting of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Commission at FLA Live Arena. The commission was formed in 2018 to investigate failures that led to the tragedy on Feb. 14, 2018.
This was the commission’s first meeting in nearly a year. Since then, a mass shooting at Robb Elementary has renewed the public’s interest in protecting schools from mass shootings.
“The vast majority of these situations end very fast and end before the cops can even get to campus,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the commission. “You want to mitigate harm. To do that, you have to have someone armed who can kill the killer.”
State law requires every school to have at least one armed police officer or guardian on campus, but Gualtieri said if you only have one on Florida’s larger campuses, “you’re going to have mass casualties.”
“Two is better than one, three is better than two and four is better than three,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you need 50 or 60, but you need to increase security in a measured way.”
Manny Diaz, recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as the new commissioner of education, said expanding the guardian program will be a major focus of his. The program has been controversial in that it allows teachers who go through training to be armed if their school district allows it. South Florida school districts and charter schools use guardians, but they’ve required them to be dedicated security personnel.
“I know there was a concern when the Aaron Feis Guardian Program started, there were discussions about arming teachers having Mrs. Smith holding a .357 while she is teaching at the board,” Diaz said.
Instead, he said the program has been able to fit into most Florida school districts, including urban and rural ones, with few problems.
Broward hopes to expand its armed security force. The district has about 65 armed guardians to supplement school resource officers. The district plans to add more if voters approve a tax increase Aug. 23 that would pay for security, teacher bonuses and mental health counselors. Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said security won’t be cut even if the referendum fails.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Sheriff Gregory Tony repeated an offer he first made in 2019 to take over policing for the district.
The school district contracts with 13 municipalities and the Sheriff’s Office for school resource officers, while it runs its own investigative unit for allegations of employee wrongdoing. District officials have discussed in recent months whether to create their own police department, similar to Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County school districts.
“We feel that that would be more effective and would minimize government bureaucracy,” Tony told the commission. “The more people who have to make decisions, that slows down the process. We think it’s the right thing to do if that’s something the superintendent wants to continue to explore.”
But Cartwright told the Sun Sentinel that plan is too expensive. The proposed cost is about $180 million a year, more than twice what the school district pays for police services now.
Tony complained in the past that Runcie’s administration was slow to work with the Sheriff’s Office on issues such as allowing real-time viewing of surveillance cameras in schools and installing geocoding on cameras to help authorities precisely identify where an emergency is happening. But he said he has a good working relationship with Cartwright.
“After some frustration to get this done, we now have only a few schools that still need to modify their camera systems,” Tony said.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the safety commission, recently praised Cartwright for changes she’s made to school security, including improving behavioral threat assessments, sharing student criminal information with law enforcement and launching a random metal-detector program in schools.
During an appearance Tuesday, Gualtieri reiterated his praise.
“I think they went from a place where threat assessments were ineffective and a poster child for the way it shouldn’t be done to a model for other districts to follow,” Gualtieri said.
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One area Broward continues to struggle with is getting employees to download a smartphone app to comply with Alyssa’s Law. In October, just 16% of eligible employees had downloaded it. Today, it’s still only 26%, she said.
“It’s not where I want it to be,” she said.
She said many teachers don’t want to put a work product on their personal phone and some falsely believe the app will track their location.
Tuesday’s meeting happened at the same time as the trial in Fort Lauderdale to determine whether to execute the gunman who killed 17 and injured 17 others on Feb. 14, 2018.
The jury is hearing “impact statements” from the loved ones of those murdered this week, so many family members who normally attend the safety commission meetings were at the courthouse instead. Two fathers of victims, Ryan Petty and Max Schachter, serve on the commission and both attended Tuesday’s meeting.
In contrast to heartbreaking stories of loss at the trial, Tuesday’s meeting remained upbeat, with members saying tremendous progress has been made in the past 4½ years.
“But make no mistake about it, as much progress as we’ve made, as many changes as we’ve made, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done,” he said. “Florida is in a good place but not a great place. There is no finish line.”