The School District of Manatee County may entrust armed security personnel — not active law enforcement officers — with the safety of many area schools, an option that was previously off the table.
After the high school massacre in Parkland on Feb. 14, school officials in Manatee said sheriff's deputies and police officers would be the only people to guard local students. However, county commissioners decided on Tuesday to not share in the cost of additional security required by a new law that followed the massacre.
The county will continue sharing in the cost of existing deputies, and the district will also continue working with the Bradenton, Palmetto and Holmes Beach police departments, but that leaves some schools unprotected or under-protected. When Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 7026 on March 9, he required districts to secure every school with either law enforcement officers or "school guardians."
Districts throughout the state have since struggled to pay for the added security. Manatee schools received about $2.6 million in state money for security during the 2018-2019 school year. More than $390,000 will go to charter schools, and the allocation fell short of approximately $5.6 million needed to increase the number of deputies in Manatee schools.
As a cost-saving measure, Manatee officials plan to hire about 40 guardians through the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, according to a prepared statement from Deputy Superintendent Ron Ciranna. The initiative, which is funded by a pool of $67 million, is named after a football coach who died while shielding students from gunfire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Guardians have no authority to make arrests or act in other law enforcement capacities. They are employed by the school district and trained by the sheriff's office, and their responsibilities vary by district.
The Manatee school district could not say what experience or skill sets would be required of applicants, or whether the program would solve a shortfall in security funding, according to emails from a district spokesman on Wednesday. More planning will lead up to a presentation in front of the school board on May 22.
However, at Tuesday's board meeting, school officials underscored the fact that no teachers or other current staff would be hired as guardians. New employees will be hired solely for school security.
"We already have job descriptions and the models that Polk County, Pasco and Hillsborough are using, so we're going to evaluate those and see how those would fit our district as well," Ciranna said during Tuesday's board meeting.
School officials in Polk received 510 applications and extended conditional offers to 77 people as of Wednesday, according to an email from Jason Geary, a spokesman for the school district.
The starting salary is $30,000 a year plus benefits, according to an April 24 news release.
"We won't have a final idea of how many applicants have prior law enforcement or military experience until we get a chance to look through all of the applications," Geary wrote. "However, many appear to have such experience."
Applicants in Polk were required to have a high school diploma or an equivalent credential. The application said experience or training in a security related field was preferred. It also said guardians would be required to patrol the school, conduct searches, recommend security improvements and, if necessary, put a stop to any deadly threats against the school.
All guardians are required by law to complete 132 hours of firearms safety and proficiency training, along with 12 hours of a certified diversity training program. Applicants are also required to pass both a psychological evaluation and a drug test.
"Yes, part of the Guardian Program does indicate you can arm teachers," Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene said at Tuesday's meeting. "It does indicate you can arm personnel who aren't teachers. We aren't recommending either one of those options of the Guardian Program."