Note: this is one of two articles on the school board’s potential shift to arming some of its civilian employees. See the background briefing: “More States and Districts are Arming Teachers, But Research Is Lacking on Strategy’s Effectiveness.”
After the school massacre in Parkland four years ago, the Florida Legislature moved swiftly to enact laws addressing school safety and student-mental health issues, among them the creation of the “Guardian” program allowing the arming of teachers and other civilian staff on campus.
Some 45 of Florida’s 67 districts participate in the program in some form, according to the state department. The Flagler County school district is not among them. The school board in 2018 opted to broaden its agreement with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, and have a sheriff’s deputy at each of the district’s four elementary schools and two middle school, and two at the two high schools. Imagine School at Town center has a separate agreement with the sheriff for a deputy there. Palm Coast government pays for one of the school deputies.
The Flagler district’s position on arming teachers and other civilians may be shifting, however. The School Board last week agreed to hold a workshop soon to discuss whether the district should join the “guardian” program–not as a replacement of the sheriff’s deputies, but in addition to it.
Two sitting school board members favor the guardian program: Janet McDonald, who’s at the end of her second term (she will not run for her board seat again, having opted to run for a county commission seat), and Jill Woolbright, elected less than two years ago and running again this year. So Woolbright was not on the board when the boar opted out of the guardian program in 2018. But she is now its most vocal supporter.
Woolbright brought up the issue at last week’s workshop, saying she’d discussed it with Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly. “I know the sheriff would be in favor” of having not only school resource deputies, but armed civilians, she said, supplementing deputies at larger gatherings such as at big games or at summer school or extended day, the pre- and after-school child care programs on many campuses.
“So the conversation was, would it be best to have not necessarily two SROs but a combination of SROs and guardians so that there would be more coverage, quicker coverage on campus,” Woolbright said, noting the potential budget savings. It would require 160 hours of training for civilians, such as teachers or other staffers, to be armed.
Staly confirmed the conversation, with some caveats. Staly was at a community event. Someone asked him about arming teachers. “I answered that. She was in the audience,” Staly said of Woolbright. “I said I support the guardian program, but the school district voted against it when the law first came up, is what I said.” After the meeting Woolbright asked him about it again. “I said I would support it in addition to the school resource deputies, so it is not to replace any deputies at any school.” But, he said, campuses are big, and he would support an additional, armed presence. “I just want to make it very clear that it is not to replace deputies, just as supplemental.”
That would still be somewhat of a switch for Staly, who has previously opposed armed civilians fulfilling the role deputies are responsible for. After the Parkland massacre in 2018, when the school board was opposed to arming anyone who wasn’t a trained law enforcement officer, Staly was opposed to having non-law enforcement personnel on campuses, but left the door open to having such adjuncts on the “perimeter” of schools–if money was available.
Money has been an issue. The guardian program would not “add” civilians with arms on campus, but rather would train existing employees–those who are willing–to be part of the program. The Legislature launched the program with a one-time $67 million allocation in 2018, and only $500,000 in recurring dollars. Few districts signed up the first year, leaving money to be rolled over. But in 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $41.6 million in left-over funds, leaving it to local districts to pick up whatever balance they would be left with. On June 7, DeSantis signed legislation that included $6.5 million for the program.
The Sheriff’s Office would be responsible for training any armed civilians on campus. The state requires a minimum of 144 hours of training per individual, and leaves sheriffs to decide whether to add training hours. Staly speaks of the program as requiring 160 hours. The cost per employee is unclear, as would be the number of employees the district would consider including in the program, if it went down that road.
Notably, the board may already have its majority to do so. Board member Cheryl Massaro, who was elected the same year Woolbright was, is supportive of arming civilians within Staly’s parameters.
“I do not want weapons on campus, held by anyone, only trained law enforcement and approved guardians,” Massaro said. “Guardians that have the Sheriff’s seal of approval, after the 160 hour training. I also do not want to replace our current SRD’s but enhance the program. Will it cost us more? absolutely, but I firmly believe it is worth every penny.”
School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker is more uneasy with armed civilians, but not entirely opposed. He wants the matter better studied: he opposes a knee-jerk reaction. “I really would like to leave this up to trained law enforcement, but as costs escalate it might have to become an option. I don’t know,” Tucker said. “I have to really give that a lot of thought. a school resource officer I think is best.”
Board member Colleen Conklin has been on the board to contend with the aftermath of every mass shooting since 2000 and had led town hall meetings on school violence and mental health issues. “I understand the fear and concerns surrounding school safety,” she wrote (she has been traveling this week). “After Parkland we explored the possibility of using the guardian program. At that time, we felt it was more productive if we focused on issues related to the root cause of these tragedies, mental health and the hardening of our facilities. The Guardian program would have been in place of our SRD program. We value our SRD’s as an important part of the Flagler family. I’m certainly more comfortable with maintaining our relationship with the sheriffs department and professionally trained officers than arming our teachers or staff.”
Conklin added: “On a side note, I find it puzzling that we don’t trust our teachers enough to select a book but are now going to have a conversation about asking them to pick up a gun to protect our students.”