With numerous questions still unanswered–and some unanswerable questions–the Flagler County School Board is moving forward with gauging interest from school employees and residents in arming civilians ins schools as a presumed addition to the security provided by the Sheriff’s Office’s school resource deputies.
If such a program were to be instituted in Flagler schools, it wouldn’t happen before January 2024 at the very earliest, and likely later than that.
The school board has been debating the issue inconclusively for months. But a rather solid consensus is building between School Board members Colleen Conklin, Cheryl Massaro and Will Furry to move forward–not to establish an armed-civilian program, but to set the table for one. Board member Sally Hunt is the panel’s most skeptical about the idea, and Board member Christy Chong was entirely silent during a 45-minute discussion about the proposal at Tuesday’s workshop.
What the state refers to as the “guardian program” would enable districts either to arm some of their own employees or to hire civilians as armed guards.
In Florida, 3,000 sworn law enforcement officers are assigned to schools, as are 1,384 armed civilians. Of the state’s 67 districts, 46 have an armed-civilian program–20 of them using it as a supplement to law enforcement, 26 of them using armed civilians exclusively. Twenty-three districts have no such program, including Flagler, where so far the board had been resistant.
On Tuesday, the board was clearly more embracing of the program, with but caution, and with innumerable questions yet to be answered. “The consensus that I’m hearing is that yes, we want you to proceed to get more information,” Massaro said, noting that the district would still have to pay for part of the training and the rest of the program. How much is not yet known. “This is going to impact us fiscally just for training and materials. So we can find out what it actually would cover. How much are we responsible? How many guardians are recommended by your team? Like, do we need nine? That’s what we have, or what’s happening with Imagine,” the charter school. “So there’s a lot of questions that we have to figure out.”
This much the board agreed to do: it will prepare a survey to gauge employees’ desire or willingness to be armed. It will set up town hall meetings to gauge public sentiment about it, and to inform the public about the parameters of the district’s program–parameters that have yet to be defined, as with costs. It will then survey the public. Only then will the board again recon sider the issue and make a decision, in light of the gathered data.
Only this is certain at this point: if the district is to have armed civilians on campus, they will only be supplements to the deputies. “This would be a force multiplier, not a replacement, not an elimination of our SRD program,” Conklin said. Conklin is also adamant that what personnel qualify for the program have to have been previous law enforcement officers or veterans.
“Well, I think there’s some parents who feel the exact opposite, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want someone who has has been to Iraq,'” Hunt said. Blind and obsequious pandering in Florida to all things military aside, the mental health and stability of veterans, who take their own lives at significantly higher rates than civilians, is not a minor issue.
Hunt was also concerned about the clarity of the surveys that will go out. “That’s a really big survey, I would want it accompanied with a really very crystal clear look at what the guardian program is and what it isn’t. And I know we wouldn’t have all the details because we’re forming that,” Hunt said.
“It is a big topic. It’s very sensitive,” Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt said, “and everybody’s going to have various perspectives.” That’s why she proposed the town halls. “We’re happy to facilitate and set that up and bring all the information the facts and then there’s an open discussion and a dialogue that board members can engage with your constituents.” The town halls would precede the public survey.
When Mittlestadt asked for an explicit consensus “that the guardian program is an interest of Flagler school boards members,” she got a yes.
The sheriff’s office would be responsible for training, provising a minimum of 144 hours of training per civilian, likely more. Any training held before next July will not be paid for by the 2023 grant–assuming the state grant will actually be offered again next year. The district’s responsibility will be to ensure that a 29-page grant goes through the Department of Education. The Sheriff’s Office would prepare that application.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Jen Nawrocki and Tommy Wooleyhan, the district’s safety specialist, briefed the board on the program’s timelines.
“I don’t see it’s possible to put training in the summer months of July 2023,” Wooleyhan said, “that we’re confident to say that we will have guardians in our school at the start of the 2023-2024 school year because of the minimum 144 hours of training that is required.”
There was some eagerness on the board to get started before July 1. Mittelstadt cautioned against starting training before grant funding is secured. “I think there’s too many assumptions occurring here,” Mittelstadt said. If the board decides to go forward, then it’s up to the sheriff to ensure that the grant is in place, “because they’re not going to commit to something” otherwise. The sheriff can’t conduct training in June with funding due after July 1.
But the district did not have the full cost of the program. “We don’t know if we’re going to start small or move big. It’s really at the board’s discretion, and how many people actually qualify after they volunteer and pass all the requirements,” Wooleyhan said.
“The differentiation here is arrestable powers, citation, and employed by the sheriff’s office,” Mittelstadt said. “That is your highest level of experience, qualified experts, if you will, that are providing that safety in our school sites. We have that.”
By going the armed-civilian route, the district would choose not to add to that expertise or quality by paying for more deputies. Rather, it would choose to supplement the deputies with an armed presence that is by definition of lesser quality, abilities and powers than deputies, whether the hire is a separate guard or an existing employee who adds carrying a gun to his or her duties.
“Adding to it would be great,” Furry said.
Missing from the discussion, and in Florida as a whole is one key set of data: whether arming civilians is effective, whether it has demonstrably improved security. The Department of Education isn’t even tracking the specifics of the program in such a way that it would provide baselines for useful analysis. It has no idea how each district implements its program. Its only interest is that districts have a program. Manny Diaz, the state commissioner of education, was encouraging school boards to adopt the program when he spoke at the latest conference of the Florida School Board Association, but the rationale so far has been driven more by feel-good speculation than evidence that such programs make a difference.
But Tuesday’s discussion did contrast with the school board’s previous discussions on the subject in a key regard. With three new board members–Furry, Chong, Hunt–the discussion was less tense, less dogmatic, and driven more by what appeared to be a sincere desire for information rather than for going through motions toward a pre-determined conclusion.