The Guardian Program generates many questions and much commentary. Our goal is to provide accurate and thorough information so you have the facts at your disposal. One major point we emphasize is it is only one tool of many being implemented to enhance school safety. It will supplement our national and state award-winning School Resource Officer program. We remain committed to our SROs, who currently receive hundreds of hours of tactical training along with upgraded equipment to deter and respond to potential threats.
As a result of the February 2018 shooting of 34 students and staff that left 17 dead, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act outlined significant reforms to increase safety at Florida Schools. One of these many reforms includes the establishment of the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program to aid schools in the prevention or abatement of active assailant attacks on school premises. Florida State Statue Chapter 30.15 authorizes the sheriff to establish (requires Sheriff to, if requested and adopted by district school board) the program and sets forth specific criteria enumerated in law. 43 of 67 School Districts in Florida have or will have implemented Guardian programs in the coming year. In addition, 16 states already allow trained and armed employees. This is not a new or trivial concept.
The school Guardian program recently recommended by Superintendent Chambers and adopted by our school board is a volunteer program. These volunteers must be employees of the school district falling under its policies and procedures. A school guardian has no authority to act in any law enforcement capacity except to the extent necessary to prevent or abate an active assailant on school premises. The following information outlines the strict requirements a volunteer candidate must commit to and successfully pass before being considered for certification:
1. Hold a valid concealed carry license issued under FSS. 790.06.
2. Complete 132 total hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training conducted by Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission-certified instructors, which must include:
A. Eighty hours of firearms instruction based on the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission’s Law Enforcement Academy training model, which must include at least 10 percent but no more than 20 percent more rounds fired than associated with academy training. Program participants must achieve an 85 percent pass rate on the firearms training.
B. Sixteen hours of instruction in precision pistol.
C. Eight hours of discretionary shooting instruction using state-of-the-art simulator exercises.
D. Eight hours of instruction in active shooter or assailant scenarios.
E. Eight hours of instruction in defensive tactics.
F. Twelve hours of instruction in legal issues.
3. Pass a psychological evaluation administered by a psychologist licensed under chapter 490 and designated by the Department of Law Enforcement and submit the results of the evaluation to the Sheriff’s Office. The Department of Law Enforcement is authorized to provide the Sheriff’s Office with mental health and substance abuse data for compliance with this paragraph.
4. Submit to and pass an initial drug test and subsequent random drug tests in accordance with the requirements of FSS. 112.0455 and the Sheriff’s Office.
5. Successfully complete ongoing training, weapon inspection, and firearm qualification on at least an annual basis.
6. Successfully complete at least 12 hours of a certified nationally recognized diversity training program.
The Sheriff shall issue a school guardian certificate to individuals who meet the requirements of subparagraph 2. The Sheriff shall maintain documentation of weapon and equipment inspections, as well as the training, certification, inspection, and qualification records of each school guardian approved by the Superintendent and certified by the Sheriff. The expense of training Guardians falls to the Sheriff and is a reimbursable expenditure when submitted to the State Department of Education.
So with all these requirements, what is the necessity of Guardians in our schools? Well, when seconds count, minutes are too long to wait. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas attacker shot 17 students and staff and killed 10 of them in approximately 3 minutes. He went on to shoot 17 more and kill 7 of them in the next 3 minutes before departing. That horrific timeline alone should be sufficient, however it is certainly not all that concerns us. We have seized 10 firearms from students on our school campuses in the last five years and three firearms from students on school campuses in the last 45 days. We’ve investigated 44 mass casualty threats against schools within our district in the prior 18 months and made 11 felony arrest in those incidents. We’ve also effected countless lockdowns of our schools for armed robberies, shootings, armed individuals and other incidents which occur near our schools. Of the 46 mass school shootings examined by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, the shooters were stopped by school teachers and staff in 43 of them, many at the expense of a school employee’s life. The hard truth is when an armed intruder comes onto school premises (or any premises) with the intent of murdering students and staff, that intruder must be met and repelled immediately with whatever force is necessary to stop them.
Those are incredibly sobering statistics but don’t include the more than 1,600 Baker Acts in Okaloosa County annually, the 1,350 Domestic Violence incidents in 2018 alone, or the 350 sexual offenders/predators residing in our county who our SRO’s register and track. We have over 250 gang members and associates (as identified by statute) who reside within Okaloosa County. We also deal with numerous child abuse and neglect cases, as well as court ordered injunctions, child custody disputes, stalking, and harassment. All of these bleed into our schools, which are a microcosm of society, and affect the safety of our students and staff.
Again, we want to stress this is a volunteer program, which means we do not currently know how many school employees will volunteer as candidates under the stringent requirements for certification. We do know that only qualified candidates will be accepted and then must still successfully complete all statutory and training requirements for certification as Guardians.
We live in a changing society where individuals have targeted schools. In Okaloosa County, we will never be complacent when it comes to the safety of our students and staff. Our parents expect when their child leaves home for school in the morning they will return safe and sound that afternoon. It’s an expectation we will uphold.
In closing, we again want to emphasize the Guardian program is merely one of many school security improvements we have adopted and continue to implement in accordance with the Marjory Stoneman Public Safety Act and Governor DeSantis Executive Order 19-45. Others include updated Active Assailant Response Procedures, Threat and Risk Assessment Teams, Ingress/Egress Changes, Mass Notification/Communication Systems, Updated Classroom Protocols, Active Shooter Drills, Provision of Fortify FL early Warning/Reporting app., Improved School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting and additional Diversionary Programs. These changes, coupled with physical school site security improvements, are strategies to improve our ability to identify, communicate, and act on threats against our schools, students, and staff when lives are at stake.
Larry Ashley is the Okaloosa County Sheriff. Marcus Chambers is the Superintendent of Okaloosa County Schools.