The Flagler County School Board, at the behest of two members–Janet McDonald, who is stepping down in November, and Jill Woolbright, who is running for re-election–is considering whether to add armed civilians, possibly school staffers, on school campuses, a program the state has legalized as the “Guardian Program.”
To that end, the board had an hour-long discussion Tuesday with Thomas Wooleyhan, the district’s safety specialist, Sheriff Rick Staly, whose school resource deputies currently provide security at all nine campuses plus Imagine School at Town Center, and Cmdr. Jason Neat, who oversees the division. John LeMaster, the sheriff’s in-house counsel, was also at the table.
The discussion was not intended as an immediate preface to a decision: the board is still quite a distance from that. Tuesday’s discussion seemed to raise as many questions as it answered, fleshing out costs and uncertainties and not even breaching matters of liability: as one board member said afterward, if a guard were to misfire and kill or injure a student or another school employee, what then?
Next weeks election will also influence the discussion’s direction, if not stamp it with an expiration date. But for now, there is enough interest on the board to explore the issue, with the Uvalde school massacre adding a measure of anxiety about doing nothing, even though Florida was among the most proactive states with school security following the Parkland school massacre in South Florida in 2018. It was in that aftermath that the district adopted the blanket coverage of schools with sheriff’s deputies, and with two deputies at each high school.
The discussion also gave Staly the opportunity to set down clear parameters within which he would be a partner, and without which he would not. The discussion made clear that if the district is to have a “guardian” program, it would be on Staly’s terms but for certain policy decisions addressing details.
“I will support a guardian program if it enhances the school resource deputies on campus,” Sheriff Rick Staly told the school board. “If you’re looking to replace it, you won’t get my support. This shouldn’t be about saving money. It should be about making sure that our kids are safe on campus and we’ve made great strides together in the last five years. You’re hardening schools much better. But it shouldn’t be to replace the school resource deputies.”
If the district were to end its relationship with the sheriff’s office and have only its own guards on campuses, the sheriff would not support the program, and likely would not even provide training: state law provides for that exception, which would require the district to seek training from a sheriff in another county. But that’s a very unlikely scenario “and we do not want to go there,” Thomas Wooleyhan, the district’s safety specialist, said.
“The size of our schools demands that we have a few more than just one person there,” the board’s Janet McDonald said.
“My preference if our budget allowed it would be to just add additional SRDs, period,” board member Colleen Conklin said, but the budget doesn’t allow it: each school resource deputy costs about $115,000 to $120,000, and the district is already paying for 13. Conklin asked numerous questions about alternatives, and had to specify: “My questions are not coming from a place of disrespect at all.” Staly didn’t take them as such, and himself wished the state focused more on fixing the Safe School Act formula to provide for better law enforcement coverage in schools.
Staly said if the district wanted to “enhance” the deputies’ coverage, the district would have to have at least a dozen guards or 13, to enable coverage of one guard per school, with others providing for time off or sicknesses and the like. Before that, the district would have to face up to controversial policy decisions about who those guards would be.
“Are they strictly coming from the outside, or are they going to be school administrators, school staff, teachers, I know that’s pretty controversial,” Staly told the board. “My daughter’s a school teacher. She doesn’t want to carry a gun. You also have faculty members and staff that do want to be able to, so that’s a that’s a policy decision that you need to make. It doesn’t matter to me who they are.”
Any person certified for the program has no authority to act in any law enforcement capacity except to intervene to prevent harm during an active-shooter incident. Should the school board approve such a program, it then becomes the sheriff’s responsibility to set up training. State law requires a minimum training of 144 hours, including 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety proficiency training by certified instructors, and 12 hours of instruction on legal issues. Many of the counties that have adopted the approach go beyond that. Participants must pass a psychological evaluation, random drug tests, 12 hours of diversity training, and repeat ongoing firearm qualifications every year. Participants must be recertified every year.
The district would have to pay school employees for their training hours, at their regular pay scale. The state provides money for training, though it’s not clear if it covers the full cost, and if the sheriff’s office opts to extend training past the 144 hours, the district would have to pick up that cost, too.
Conklin asked if the training included de-escalation techniques. It does not. “I agree with Colleen, clearly, de-escalation should be included in training, it is not included,” Staly said, “because the thought process is that if you need the Guardian, it’s probably too late for de-escalation, quite frankly. You’re talking to an agency that has a great record of de-escalation since I’ve been sheriff, and actually since before I was sheriff.” De-escalation training would add 20 hours. Uniforms would not be included.
Staly hasn’t asked his staff to put a cost to training yet, so he couldn’t say how much more it would cost if training hours are to exceed 144.
But all participants would get to train is a one-time fee of $500, unless the district chooses to pay them more. Staly said the $500 will not cover it–not between drug tests, firearms, ammunition and other expenses. “The state has given you a piece, but it’s not giving you all of it,” he said. He placed the real cost closer to $1,200 to $1,400, plus annual recertifications. This year, the Legislature has allocated only $6.5 million to train teachers and staff statewide. “When that money’s gone, it’s gone,” Staly said.
As the Tampa Bay Times reported, the program has led to torrents of peripheral spending that leaves guards themselves with a relatively small portion of the overall allocation.
“If we were to implement that training, 144 hours, that is a a long commitment. That is your summer,” Wooleyhan said. “So we would have to come to you again if we wish to implement the program. We would have to come up with an MOU to saying we would have to pay these employees because they are our employees.” An MOU is a memorandum of understanding, a form of contract. If the district were to hire its armed guards separately from existing employees, ” that would create a new job description,” Wooleyhan said, “and would create a whole new position and put them on a pay scale. And that would be their sole responsibility.”
It’ll be up to the district to decide whether the armed civilians carry weapons openly or not, whether the weapon must be secured on site at the end of the day or taken home. Districts also decide whether the civilians, who are employees of the district, are in uniform or in plainclothes. Volusia County relies especially on armed civilian employees–essentially, security guards–in its elementary schools rather than on school resource deputies or officers. None of them have arrest powers. In Putnam it’s “maybe an administrator or dean, a campus advisor, a guidance counselor, a custodian, anybody that actually completes the requirements that the sheriff office implements,” Wooleyhan said.
The district must also decide, if the guard is a school employee, how that would be handled if the employee is hired on a 196-day contract, like most teachers, or on a 12-month contract, like most administrators.
The sheriff said expecting to draw guards from retired law enforcement officers may fall short, because the retired don;t want to come back. He also warned: “some people very frankly can’t shoot.” Even when including retired military personnel, “I think the reality is, can they be qualified?” He suggested that if the district were to add guards, not to do so piecemeal, which would send the wrong message that, say, a high school is more important than an elementary school, if the rollout begins at a high school.
Meanwhile, the sheriff took the opportunity to tell the board that while he and his agency don’t like arresting young students who make threats, he will continue to do so, because he won’t take a chance. But school deputies have their own ways of intervening before arrests.
“I’ll give you an example,” Cmdr. Jason Neat said. “Last year at Buddy Taylor Middle School we experienced a surge of threats that were coming out at school, more so than we had any other schools. So the SRDs put together a program and then they assembled the students and they were able to talk to them and do a presentation to it. Drastically the number of threads went down in that school pretty rapidly. It’s not something that’s scheduled on the books, but each school is different in how they deal with their SRD. It’s something I would like to see personally because it brings it to the forefront with the kids, and then the SRDs, they they look up to, the mentors in there are also telling them, these are the consequences if you make these statements.”