Commission members call for more armed security in schools

Four and a half years after Parkland and two and a half months after Uvalde, some state leaders are convinced that more armed security is needed in schools.

Leaders of the Department of Education and a state safety commission said on Tuesday that a top priority would be to find ways to expand the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian program, which trains school employees to use firearms in the event of a school shooting. The program is named after an unarmed trainer and security guard who was one of 17 killed in the Parkland shooting.

The discussion took place during the last meeting of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Commission at the FLA Live Arena. The commission was formed in 2018 to investigate the failures that led to the February 14, 2018 tragedy.

This was the commission’s first meeting in nearly a year. Since then, a mass shooting at Robb Elementary has renewed public interest in protecting schools from mass shootings.

“The vast majority of these situations end very quickly and are over before the cops can even get to campus,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the commission. “You want to mitigate the damage. To do this you must 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 the biggest campuses in Florida, “you’re going to have massive losses”.

“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 Governor Ron DeSantis as the new education commissioner, said expanding the tutor program would be one of his main goals. The program has been controversial in that it allows teachers undergoing training to be armed if their school district allows it. School districts and charter schools in South Florida use guardians, but have required them to be dedicated security personnel.

“I know there was a concern when the Aaron Feis Guardian program started there was talk about arming teachers for Ms. Smith to hold a .357 while teaching on the board,” said Diaz.

Instead, he said the program was able to integrate into most Florida school districts, including urban and rural districts, with few problems.

Broward hopes to expand its armed security force. The district has approximately 65 armed guards to supplement the 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 would not be cut even if the referendum failed.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Sheriff Gregory Tony repeated an offer he first made in 2019 to take over the district police.

The school district contracts with 13 municipalities and the sheriff’s office for school resource officers, while it operates its own investigation unit for allegations of employee wrongdoing. District officials have discussed in recent months whether to create their own police department, similar to school districts in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County.

“We think it would be more efficient and minimize government bureaucracy,” Tony told the commission. “The more people who have to make decisions, the more it slows down the process. We think it’s the right thing to do if it’s something the Superintendent wants to continue exploring.

But Cartwright told the Sun Sentinel the plan was too expensive. The proposed cost is about $180 million per year, more than double what the school district currently pays for policing.

Tony has complained in the past that the Runcie administration was slow to work with the sheriff’s office on issues such as real-time viewing of surveillance cameras in schools and installing geocoding on cameras to help authorities to identify precisely where an emergency is occurring. But he said he had a good working relationship with Cartwright.

“After some frustration getting this done, we only have a few schools left that still need to modify their camera systems,” Tony said.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the safety committee, recently praised Cartwright for changes she has made to school safety, including improving behavioral threat assessments, sharing criminal information about students with law enforcement and the launch of a random metal detector program in schools.

In an appearance on Tuesday, Gualtieri reiterated his praise.

“I think they went from being a place where threat assessments were ineffective and a poster boy for how it shouldn’t be done to being 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, only 16% of eligible employees had downloaded it. Today, it’s still only 26%, she says.

“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 mistakenly believe the app will track their location.

Tuesday’s meeting was held at the same time as the trial in Fort Lauderdale to determine whether to execute the gunman who killed 17 people and injured 17 others on Feb. 14, 2018.

The jury is hearing ‘impact statements’ from relatives of those murdered this week, so many family members who normally attend safety committee meetings were at the courthouse instead. Two victims’ fathers, Ryan Petty and Max Schachter, serve on the commission and both attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Contrary to the heartbreaking stories of loss at trial, Tuesday’s meeting remained optimistic, with members saying huge progress has been made over the past four and a half years.

“But make no mistake, as much progress as we’ve made, as much change as we’ve made, there’s 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.”

Aurora J. William