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More Than 20 Districts Move Forward With ‘Guardians’

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

About a third of Florida’s school districts are taking steps to deploy armed “guardians” on school campuses to prevent incidents such as mass shootings, according to the state Office of Safe Schools.

Damien Kelly, a veteran law-enforcement officer who is the first director of the newly created safety agency, told the Florida Board of Education on Wednesday that 22 of the 67 districts are in the process of deploying specially trained personnel under the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.”

The program was named for an assistant football coach who used his body to shield students during the Feb. 14 mass shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The guardian program, which is part of a $400 million school-safety law passed this year by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Rick Scott, has been controversial, with some districts rejecting the idea of training school personnel to be armed.

But with a mandate that each Florida school have at least one safety officer, some districts are using the guardian program, which was designed to supplement the traditional use of school resource officers and other law-enforcement officers.

The Legislature set aside $67 million in one-time funding for the guardian program to cover the cost of doing background checks and training the personnel. The guardians will also be provided with a $500 stipend to cover equipment costs.

Kelly, who spent 13 years with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a dozen years with the Memphis police, said 22 local sheriff’s departments have applied to train volunteers for the guardian program, with about $9.4 million in funding requests.

With students already back in their classrooms in the majority of districts for the 2018-2019 academic year, Kelly outlined other school safety initiatives underway including:

--- A FortifyFL app that will let students and others use their mobile phones to report suspicious activity.

--- A data-analytics system that will allow the monitoring of social media in school districts.

--- The appointment of a “school safety specialist” in each of the 67 districts to coordinate safety activity. The specialists will be trained by Kelly’s office.

Kelly also described to the Board of Education, which was meeting in Orlando, numerous meetings he has held with local school officials, law enforcement agencies and others as the new school-safety initiatives are put into place across the state.

He said he has been reviewing recommendations that were developed in the wake of other mass shootings, ranging from the Pulse nightclub shootings in 2016 in Orlando to the shootings at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017.

The safety suggestions include the use of active-shooter training, the need to test communication systems, planning for access by medical personnel and the need for more tourniquets, Kelly said.

He also said he has visited schools where new fencing has been installed to limit campus access, although in some cases it has drawn complaints from the public.

“Sadly, this is a different day and age that we’re living in now, and these measures are important,” Kelly said.

He also said cost remains a major factor for many districts and law-enforcement agencies as they work to improve school safety.

Other school-safety recommendations are expected to emerge from the ongoing work of the state-created Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which is investigating the Broward County shooting.