More Florida school personnel will be eligible to carry guns on campus, under a bill Gov. Ron DeSantis signed on Wednesday. Two Panhandle school districts are moving in other directions.
“I said I was for the bill from the beginning; I urged the Legislature to pass it in my State of the State [Address], “said DeSantis. “Once the session ended people asked me, ‘are you going to sign it?’ Yes. ‘Are you going to sign it?’ Yes.”
Senate Bill 7030 is voluntary, and expands the Guardian program to allow qualified, non-teaching school employees to arm themselves. Most of the recommendations from the special commission set up after Parkland take effect immediately, while expansion of Guardian kicks in Oct. 1.
“You had experts from around the state; they looked at school security very seriously. They identified problems, they proposed solutions,” said the Governor. “The characterization of it as an armed teacher bill is, quite frankly, spin.”
Democrats spent hours arguing against the bill, saying it could lead to accidental shootings, or that a teacher could panic and fire during a confrontation with students.
“Here’s the thing: you have somebody who really wants to do harm; if they think they’re going to meet resistance, they’re much less likely to choose a school,” DeSantis said. “I don’t want people to think that somehow it’s a soft target; I want people to think, ‘I’m not messing with the schools in Florida, because I know I’m going to face some serious pushback if I do.”
Broward County, where the shooting took place, has rejected the Guardian program; so has the Santa Rosa County School District, where only deputies serve as school resource officers.
“Student safety is the one thing that I go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning thinking about,” said Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick. “We put into place mechanisms that protect students and employees with a great deal of detail. We aren’t involved with the Guardian Program as per se, but we do understand the need for it in some places.”
Wyrosdick concedes the program does have some amenities.
“If needed down the road, we will begin to explore those, but [presently] we will stay very firm with the relationship that we have with the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office and their ability to supply for us appropriate, well-trained school resource officers,” Wyrosdick said. “We see that as the best advantage for us right now.”
Classes in the Santa Rosa District are winding up for another school year, but Wyrosdick says campus safety is a concern year-round.
“We do this on a daily basis; even several times a day when incidences take place,” Wyrosdick says. “So there’s a constant review of the opportunities to secure our schools and communicate with law enforcement agencies about doing so.”
“The law makes several provisions by which a school district can put armed security on a campus,” says Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. That security can take three forms: campus resource officers who are sworn law enforcement personnel; a district’s own police force, or campus security officers who are trained civilians.
“We’re electing to use a hybrid of sworn law enforcement officers and campus safety officers,” Thomas said. “Each district is able to make its own decision in terms of arming teachers. We have decided that we would not do that; we don’t want to put one more thing on the plates of our teachers, who are already overloaded.”
The Escambia School District is now hiring CSOs for elementary schools beginning in August. Applications must be made through the District; training will be provided by the county Sheriff’s Office. An extensive background check begins the process.
“They will undergo a psychological evaluation and they’ll undergo a polygraph,” said Thomas. “It’s about four weeks of training, about 150 hours [and] quite a bit of time on the firing range. If you make it through all of the training, the Sheriff certifies you, and at that point then we can hire them.”
The first class is expected to begin next month. The trainees will be paid during the course, and those selected will have a starting salary at $30,600 plus benefits, for a 10-month position. Thomas is hoping the program will attract retired law enforcement and/or retired military.
“Certainly those people have been exposed to weaponry; they know how to be calm under fire, so to speak,” Thomas said. “And typically they’ll be mature individuals. But, we’ll look hard at everyone who applies. We’ve had quite a number of people respond to the advertisement; they can see the job description at our website.” The Guardian program covers more than just guns. It also seeks to improve data collection on incidents at schools which could pose a threat; expand mental-health services at schools, and enhance information-sharing between schools about new students with behavior issues.