Principal promises guardian will deal with any attack
Starting on Oct. 1, teachers can voluntarily undergo firearms training and wield a gun if their school district takes advantage of new legislation, quietly signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week.
Senate Bill 7030 allows teachers to participate in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, named after the football coach who died while shielding students from last year’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland. Guardians have no law enforcement authority — their sole purpose is to fire back during a school shooting.
The School District of Manatee County employs dozens of guardians, but it stopped short of allowing teacher participation. With a 3-2 vote in late April, the school board passed a resolution against any legislation that would allow teachers to be armed.
Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said she would prefer to use guardians and law enforcement officers who make security their sole purpose. She supported the school board’s decision to not merge the armed position with teaching jobs.
“I, at this point, cannot support that,” she said. “But I’m grateful the Legislature allowed it to be left up to the individual districts.”
Vice-Chair Gina Messenger and board member Scott Hopes voted against the resolution. Messenger said she opposed the arming of local teachers, but both said it would be a mistake to oppose legislation that gives control to each school district.
“I don’t want our teachers in the classroom to be armed, but I don’t want to affect some of the rural counties,” Hopes said at a past meeting.
In a follow-up interview on Thursday afternoon, Hopes said he wasn’t completely opposed to the new option. While training and arming teachers wasn’t preferred, he said, the school district still needed to assess the needs of every campus.
“There’s a difference between wanting to and needing to,” he said.
The school board’s resolution stopped short of naming charter schools, but very few campuses are considering the new option in their security plans.
Ten of the county’s 13 charter schools responded to questions from the Bradenton Herald, and all but one said they had no plans to enroll teachers in the guardian program. The option is still open at Palmetto Charter School, according to a May 6 email from Principal Brian Bustle.
“We will discuss the possibility of allowing one or more teachers to volunteer for the program at our May board meeting,” he wrote.
Three charter schools — Lincoln Memorial Academy, Oasis Middle School and Team Success— did not respond.
Even if the school board were to include charter schools in its prohibition on teachers in the guardian program, it’s not clear whether it would have that authority. Senate Bill 7030 says school boards must collaborate with charter schools to make all security options available.
If the school board denies a charter school access to the guardian program, the district would be required to assign a law enforcement officer to the campus.
But the school board already established a guardian program for both traditional and charter schools. If the board wanted to extend its resolution to charter schools, it seems they wouldn’t be “denying access,” as outlined in the new legislation.
Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said she reviewed Manatee’s resolution and spoke with Galvano about his understanding of the new law.
“President Galvano said that on its face, he does not believe that a district’s decision to maintain the prohibition on classroom teachers participating in the guardian program rises to the level of a district denying access to the guardian program for charter schools,” she wrote.
“He said that a charter school would need to make that case at the local level if they felt as though they were being denied access, but generally speaking, he does not believe maintaining the prohibition against classroom teachers constitutes denying access, as other personnel could serve as guardians,” Betta continued.
In areas without a guardian program, the law allows charter schools to look outside of their county if the local sheriff’s office refuses to start a program at the school’s request. Despite his concerns about armed teachers, Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells said he would train anyone if the district were to change its stance.
“If something changed, I’m not going to pass that on to another sheriff,” he said. “It’s still my responsibility to train them and make sure they’re getting the best training possible.”
Guardian training is facilitated by sheriffs throughout the state, and Wells listed several concerns with the program’s expansion. Outside of the teachers who were already allowed to participate, including current and former law enforcement officers, could educators handle the pressure of confronting a shooter?
Perhaps more importantly, amid the chaos of a school shooting, could responding officers differentiate between the teacher and the assailant?
Senate Bill 7030 is officially known as the Implementation of Legislative Recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Formed after last year’s shooting in Parkland, the commission urged lawmakers to include all teachers in the voluntary guardian program.
“I understand the reasoning behind the Marjory Stoneman committee wanting it to be an option,” Wells said. “I just think there’s too many issues with teachers being armed, especially during an active shooter situation.”