The Flagler County School Board on Tuesday decided not to further pursue the possibility of arming staffers or non-school civilians this year as too many unanswered questions persist about what the approach would cost the district and what its scope would be. But it may do so next year.
The deferral is not entirely, or even mostly, the school district’s doing, but a result of a bizarrely short window of only a few days that the state Department of Education is giving local sheriff’s offices to apply for training grants, without which school districts can’t proceed with their own program. If the Flagler district were to have such a program, Sheriff Rick Staly has made clear that first, it would have to be a supplement, not a replacement, of school resource deputies. And second, that his agency would be providing the training in sync with certain agency standards. The district agreed.
The state this year is making $6.5 million available to law enforcement agencies to train individuals who would take part in the program. But it was only late on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 2, the Friday before Labor Day, when many offices have already emptied, that Tim Hay, the director of the state office of safe schools (under the aegis of the Department of Education) issued a memo inviting sheriff’s offices to apply for a share of the money. The deadline is Sept. 15. In effect, the state was giving counties all of seven days to fill out “a very, very detailed application,” in the words of Tommy Wooleyhan, the Flagler district’s school safety specialist.
“I don’t even see how that’s possible,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said. “I’m not saying I’m against the guardian program. What I’m saying because we don’t have all the information.” But, she noted, “We’re talking about an additional cost that is an unknown, that is going into a budget year where we’re looking at a $6 million cut, so we’re being asked to make a decision based on zero information. So I don’t understand how we could do that.” The district, by law, is having to shift that $6 million to cover the cost of school vouchers for parents sending their children to private schools. (See: “Flagler Schools’ Budget Is Millions Short from 10 Years Ago as District Is Forced to Shift Tax Dollars to Private Schools.”)
The district would not be committed to going with the program even if the Sheriff’s Office files the application. The funding would be for the current school year, and for the sheriff’s office to establish and administer the training program. But the money would not pay for the trainees’ salaries (if a teacher were to train, for example, that teacher would have to be paid for that time). That’s a separate allocation that would have to be paid for by the district, not with state funds.
And the district still has no idea what such a program would cost, how many so-called guardians it would have, how it would handle the absence of participants when sick, when on vacation, when tending to other, off-school responsibilities for the district, or when they transfer, among many other questions. The district still has no idea whether it would tap into its own staff or hire from outside. The district has no idea what its policies would be regarding the carrying or storing of weapons, what liability issues are, and other questions.
“I would hate to ask the sheriff’s office to do this if we still have more work to do over the course of the next couple of months,” Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt said. “And maybe we’re a year away, but I don’t want to drive that train. I’m just trying to be respectful to the timing of everything that’s going to come forward.”
The board discussed the program at a workshop earlier this summer, but did not reach a conclusion so much as discover the long list of questions yet to be answered. (See: “Arming School Staffers on Flagler’s Campuses Raises Questions of Cost, Training and Numbers.”)
“We haven’t determined our methodology. We haven’t brought forward to you the actual district cost. It was more about the appetite to pursue that,” Wooleyhan said, and the board was all over the place regarding that appetite.
Interest in pursuing such a program was drummed up by School Board member Jill Woolbright, with almost equal interest from Board member Janet McDonald, on a board that’s otherwise divided on the issue. Conklin and Trevor Tucker prefer sticking with professional law enforcement as schools’ line of defense: the district has a contract with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office that ensures the presence of deputies in every school, and two deputies at each of the two high schools, plus a supervisor. The district and the county split that considerable cost. Board member Cheryl Massaro is on the fence, yet to be decided based on cost, scope and policies to be adopted.
Woolbright kept pushing Tuesday, saying that since the grant application doesn’t obligate the district, the ball is in the sheriff’s court to fill that application. But that’s not quite accurate: the application requires a scope of work narrative that depends at least in part on knowing what the district’s scope consists of.
Woolbright, at any rate, lost her re-election bid, and McDonald, who also lost a bid for a County Commission seat, and will not be back after November, didn’t attend Tuesday’s session of the board. That signaled to the board’s remaining member that hanging fire on the issue was still the more prudent approach. The matter may be decided by the final make-up of the school board, which will be decided in November when voters choose between Courtney VandeBunte and Will Furry as the candidate to fill McDonald’s seat.
Tucker said he had a problem asking the sheriff to apply only to be told that the district will not follow through. “That’s just strange to me. I’d rather have our ducks in a row,” Tucker, who will not be on the board past November, said. His replacement, Christy Chong, said she “would support the guardian program in addition to our existing deputies” in the Live Interview, contrasting with Tucker’s opposition.
“I would not wish to arm staff even if it costs the district more,” Tucker had said. “Teachers and administrators are professional educators and should remained focused on educating our students. I believe most teachers would lay down their lives for their students, but I want their sole focus to be on education. Safety should fall on sworn law enforcement officers.”
Sally Hunt, who defeated Woolbright, said her “personal preference is to not go down the path of arming staff or civilians with deadly weapons. I am, however, very open to any option that is both safe and proven to safeguard district campuses.” VandeBunte supports continuing the program with the Sheriff’s Office, and has doubts about arming civilians on campus: “We don’t know if arming civilians in addition to the already existing deputies will make people safer because of the lack of data,” VandeBunte said.
Furry takes the Woolbright view: “Adding guardians to campus will provide additional support to our SRO’s and instant backup in the event of an active shooter situation,” he said.
Even if Furry is elected, the board would still have a 2-2 split, with Massaro the swing voter on the issue. Massaro remains undecided and wants a lot more questions answered. “I think we need to get more information, see how it would fit into our programs and what is the budget impact going to look like,” she said. “Even the money they give is not going to cover the necessary training. We’re going to have to contribute to that, too. So now you’ve got salary and you’ve got equipment, and you’ve got to add to the training. It’s going to be costly.”
Arming civilians in schools is little studied or evidence-based, but it is spreading around the nation. In Florida, the state chooses to call it the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.” Feis was an assistant coach and security guard at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland when he shielded students from the bullets fired by Nikolas Cruz in the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre where Cruz murdered Feis and 16 others.
The “guardian program” is a euphemism for the state’s enabling of local districts to arm either school staffers, including teachers, or non-law enforcement outsiders hired as added security. Because they are non-law enforcement, they would by definition be non-professional security men or women responsible for providing an added layer of protection in the eventuality of a situation involving a school assailant. There are training requirements of a minimum 144 hours per armed civilian, with room for additional hours if the local school board and law enforcement agency deem it necessary.
Most of Florida’s school districts have signed on, many because they either cannot afford or the local law enforcement agencies cannot provide the level of protection the Flagler Sheriff’s Office provides the Flagler district, with a deputy at each school.