As the Flagler County School Board nears a decision on arming some staffers on campus, School Board Chair Cheryl Massaro isn’t convinced that’s what employees want. She wants to hear from them before making a decision.
Last month the district conducted an anonymous survey of school employees, but it was limited. It only asked whether employees were interested in themselves being armed to participate in what the state refers to as the “guardian” program. Out of over 1,800 employees, only 514 responded (fewer than 30 percent), including scores from the district office and other off-site locations, which would be all but irrelevant to the program.
Out of those, only 109 school-based employees said they’d be willing to participate.
“Over 1,800 employees, and we have an awful lot of non-responses,” Massaro said at the end of a workshop today, concluding the latest in numerous discussions on the subject since last year. “That concerns me. With 1,800 people, I don’t know if they’re in favor of having guns in school. I hear a lot of people that don’t like the concept. They’re glad they have the trained officers but as opposed to guardian, it’s a lot different. And I’m not having their input where–is this something that we need to do? We have to keep that in mind.”
Massaro asked that employees (and members of the community) share their opinions on the subject through the district’s “Let’s Talk” link, an online page that enables people to voice their ideas and opinions at will, on numerous subjects broken down. The “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program” is one of the tabs, under School Safety. The comments may be contributed anonymously.
Tommy Wolleyhan, the district’s safety specialist, said some comments have been filed through the tab. He did not say how they broke down.
The program would not replace the 14 Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies now providing security in the district’s nine traditional schools (a 15th does so at Imagine School at Town center, the district’s one charter school). Sheriff Rick Staly has repeatedly said he would not be a party to the program if it were in any way a replacement for deputies. But he welcomes the program as an addition. His agency would train the recruits.
The district never considered replacing deputies. The only other options it considered were either to have its own additional security staff, or to hire staffers from a security company. Today, the board agreed that, if it is to move ahead with any kind of supplementary armed presence on campus, it will be with its own employees. The security guard options were discarded.
“I would like to learn more about the plain-clothed guardians and just start there and maybe we just phase them in,” Board member Christy Chong said. “Maybe we don’t need 12, but start small.”
Arming 12 staffers who are not on 12-month contracts, such as teachers, would cost the district between $54,000 and $61,000, with $6,000 of that covering liability insurance on the district’s side, Wooleyhan said.
“This would be coming out of our schools’ general fund fund budget, it is not a check written by Tallahassee covering, really, any of this,” Board member Sally Hunt specified. Wooleyhan confirmed it. The district would have to pay those costs to cover the employees’ salaries for the time they’d be in training. Training costs are separate.
The program’s recruits would most be employees who don’t work 12 months a year, so they could use their summer weeks to train. “How would that look for 12-month employees that are assigned to a campus, especially in the summertime, [if] we’re taking them off of their normal assignment,” Wooleyhan said.
Wooleyhan’s assumptions are all based on training 12 staffers. It does not take in consideration what would happen if one or more of the 12 were to fail the training, or quit, or decide not to participate after a few weeks, or move out of the district. There would be no additional training rounds for that cycle. Hunt raised the question.
“That is one of the biggest discussions that we have had is turnover,” the sheriff’s Chief David Williams said. “That is something to consider.”
Participants don’t get extra pay. They get a one-time $500 stipend, from the state grant channeled through the Sheriff’s Office. It’s not renewable, unless the district were to pay an annual stipend.
The Sheriff’s Office has its own, separate training costs, totaling $77,000 for 12 individuals. But the department is eligible for a $100,000 state grant that would cover that cost. The money would pay for equipment, guns, personnel training, liability and so on. Training would total at least 144 hours, not including eight hours of tactical medical training. That kind of training enables individuals to provide first aid in an emergency.
The candidate must pass a psychological evaluation from a licensed psychologist designated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, pass a drug test, submit to subsequent, random drug tests, and successfully complete training.
Hunt wanted more precision on the “long-term vision.” If the district were to go with a dozen now, does that mean it would add a dozen next year? And another dozen after that? Hunt had some anxiety about that. But the board had no answer to her question. “We’re not in any position at this particular time to give you an end goal, because we don’t even know where the start goal is,” Massaro said.
“I would still say at this point, I’m still kind of in that gathering information mode,” Board member Colleen Conklin said. “We don’t want to do anything that’s not going to add to our relationship with our SROs in our buildings. But I am concerned about some of these impacts.”
Board member Will Furry has been chomping at the bit to get the program going. He repeatedly referred misleadingly to 112 staffers willing to participate, inflating the number by including off-campus employees. In an emergency, a deputy on patrol would more likely be at any given school faster than those off-site employees.
One member of the public, Chanel Channing, addressed the board on the subject, saying (inaccurately) that the board had voted last year to move ahead with it, and pressing the board to approve it. But members insisted they were still in the exploratory stage.
“The only way we can possibly move forward would be with the plainclothes,” Massaro said of the armed-staffers option. “So what I’m hearing from everybody else is that they would be more interested in getting the details now on that possible format, and exact costs, rounded out as best as possible to see where we would be. Then we can come to a conclusion of whether we proceed or not.”
That means there will be yet more discussions about what a policy controlling the program would read like, what the district’s liability issues would be, where the staffers’ weapons would be stored and how, how they would be identified to sheriff’s deputies (that identification would be known only by the superintendent and sheriff’s deputies, though it may be difficult to keep it from spilling out), and so on.