Dozens of armed guardians, defined as security guards without law enforcement authority, are slated to protect Manatee County schools in about two months, but changes could be coming.
School board Chairman Scott Hopes met with Sheriff Rick Wells on Friday to discuss their common goal: trusting certified law enforcement officers, not guardians, with the safety of area schools.
It was the same goal expressed by Superintendent Diana Greene and other school board members after the Feb. 14 massacre at a high school in Parkland.
One of the greatest barriers to hiring more deputies was the capital costs, which include patrol cars, uniforms and more. The chairman and sheriff agreed that future school resource officers could start without the most expensive equipment, mainly patrol cars and the associated laptops.
The transition would likely be slow. While their goal is almost certain to extend past the 2018-2019 school year, they felt Friday's meeting was a productive start.
"We have to get rid of the red tape; the political minutia that was involved as far as all the expenses," Wells said.
His office is still working out the numbers. How many purchases can be avoided, and how much money could be saved? Regardless, Wells said cutting upfront expenses may lessen the cost difference between hiring guardians and deputies.
Though the district is already taking applications, the school board will vote Tuesday on whether to approve the job description for guardians and their supervisors. The meeting is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. at 215 Manatee Ave. W.
Lead guardians are required to have five years of experience in armed security duties, including three years of supervisory or managerial experience, according to the draft job description. However, guardians are only required to hold a high school diploma and be 21 years or older to apply.
Each is required to undergo 144 hours of state-mandated training, which includes 80 hours of firearms instruction, eight hours of active shooter education and 12 hours of a diversity training program. The sheriff's office is responsible for administering both the initial and ongoing training.
While the district hopes to employ about 30 guardians, Wells said it's unlikely that enough applicants will make it through the training, background check and psychological evaluation.
Ron Ciranna, deputy superintendent of business and operations for the district, said at a recent school board workshop that 20 to 60 percent of candidates are expected to fail.
"It's not just going up there and shooting six rounds at a target," Wells said. "They're going to have to work for it."
The school board unanimously agreed to spend nearly $598,000 to put deputies and police officers in every school after the Parkland shooting. Gov. Rick Scott then signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act, requiring every school be guarded in the future.
Wells said his office could again provide more deputies if the district falls short on guardians for the upcoming school year. He also said the sheriff's office would help interview candidates, and that his deputies would help the guardians and their supervisors whenever possible.
He said most resource officers are veteran deputies who wanted a new role, whereas newer deputies usually patrol the roads.
The long-term goal, he said, is to staff schools with those experienced deputies and police officers. The sheriff's office already guarded middle and high schools, as did officers from the Bradenton, Palmetto and Holmes Beach police departments, but the new law created a need for security in elementary schools. County commissioners decided in May to not share the cost of hiring extra deputies.
Last week, the district had received about 150 guardian applications, some of them military veterans or former police officers, Hopes said.
The board chairman feels experience is the distinguishing factor between guardians and deputies, and Wednesday's active shooter training at Bayshore High School helped to solidify his beliefs.
"When that shot is fired, because of all their training, experience and recurrent training, they instinctively know what steps to take," he said.
Much of that experience comes from the approximately 6 months that each potential deputy or police officer spends at the Manatee Technical Institute Law Enforcement Academy, Hopes said.
He said the experience also comes from a certification program for school resource officers, and from ongoing training at the sheriff's office.
But, under the new law, every school needs a law enforcement officer or guardian on its campus by the start of school in August. Hopes said it's possible that some guardians will arrive with prior training, motivating them to attend the academy and one day become a certified deputy.
"We don't have a one-stop solution to this problem," he said. "We agreed on the common goal of ending up where we have armed law enforcement as school resource officers."