A new state law requires districts to step up school safety and mental health. A provision in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act requires all Florida public schools to have a police officer on campus or a trained employee who carries a gun.
Duval County already has district police officers assigned to middle and high schools but now has to staff its remaining schools.
While the legislature workshopped the safety plan earlier this year, Duval County’s school board passed a resolution against arming school employees. That part of the state act is named the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.”
Superintendent Patricia Willis has met with several groups - including the teacher’s union and principals - and she said none of them wanted to arm school employees.
“We want our staff, including teachers and administrators focusing on the academic curriculum, the emotional health and physical health of our students,” School Board Chair Paula Wright said Tuesday.
But Duval Schools’ Police Chief Micheal Edwards said at Tuesday’s meeting, hiring the needed 103 additional sworn officers would cost more than $10 million, and the district only has about $3.6 million state school safety dollars to fill the void.
Edwards presented an alternative plan to instead create a new position. The district would hire what would be called “school safety assistants” who would be trained under the Guardian program. They would work under his department and have no other position at the schools.
The new employees would cost about $4.4 million for salaries and equipment, leaving the district to pick up the rest — about $800,000.
“It gave us the opportunity to be in a position where we were close to the amount of money that the state provided to us,” Edwards said.
Several board members said they’d be comfortable with Edwards’ compromise.
“I applaud this. I think it’s excellent,” Board member Lori Hershey said.
No options for training already-employed school personnel were presented because it was never under consideration, district spokesman Tracy Pierce said in an email.
The safety assistants’ responsibilities would primarily entail using whatever force may be necessary to prevent or abate an active assailant incident. They’d also participate in all school emergency drills.
But school guardians have no authority to act in any law enforcement capacity.
“They can’t Baker Act students, they can’t make arrests,” Edwards said.
To complete the Guardian program, individuals must have a concealed carry permit, pass a drug test and go through training.
Edwards said the new assistants would get 160 hours of training through both the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and his department. They would wear brown uniforms and have equipment, including a gun and bullet proof vest.
The training courses would take place over the summer in time for next school year. Board members would have to approve the plan at next month's meeting. The new safety assistants would be paid between $22,000 and $23,000, having summers off.
Edwards said a challenge of this option will be hiring and training 103 new safety assistants in a short timeframe.
He said retired military and those interested in becoming police officers might be good candidates. He’s working to get their training hours to count toward law enforcement training.
School Board members would have to approve this plan during its May 1 board meeting to allow for hiring to begin that month.
Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.