Though they hail from different backgrounds, dozens of men and women convened in Palmetto for a shared purpose: the safety of Manatee County schools.
Monday was the first day of training for guardians, a term for armed security officers who have no law enforcement authority. State lawmakers created the position less than one month after the Feb. 14 massacre of 17 teachers and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
As a result, Florida school districts are now required to have security on every campus. Costly estimates forced Manatee to employ dozens of guardians instead of more sheriff’s deputies, the school board’s first choice, and residents have since vocalized their concerns.
“Let’s not rush to judgment right now,” said Pat Bartholomew, director of safety and security for the district. “We had a very solid vetting process, a selection process, so let the training speak for itself.”
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Bartholomew retired from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office after 31 years, and he will now supervise the district’s guardian program. He said the first group will deploy on Aug. 20, a week after school starts, and that another group will then start training.
Eighteen trainees served as police or military personnel, two worked in security and all 20 will undergo training by the sheriff’s office, Bartholomew said.
Each person received a pistol, magazine holder, duty belt and handcuffs, which are only meant to stop a threat, not to make arrests. Seven people had yet to receive their holsters.
“You just cannot believe the demand for law enforcement equipment in the entire state of Florida, because a lot of school districts are coming into the realm of security at their schools,” Bartholomew said.
More than 270 people applied to be a guardian, and about 70 applied to become supervisors, or “lead guardians.” That launched a process of interviews, drug screenings, background checks and psychological evaluations.
Monday’s trainees were fitted for their bullet-resistant vests before they traveled to a local gun range. Each will undergo 144 hours of coaching, including firearms instruction, active shooter drills, diversity training and legal instruction.
One potential guardian went to high school in Pinellas County before he joined the U.S. Army. He completed two tours in Iraq as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, and he later served in the National Guard.
Another trainee said he worked as a police officer in Maryland for more than 30 years, retiring only three weeks ago.
The group includes firearm instructors, hostage negotiators, detectives and child abuse investigators. Some have children in the local school system, and one is married to a teacher.
Thomas Cessar is one of two lead guardians. He worked as a trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police for more than two decades, and he spent the last two years of his career on tactical intelligence, dealing with issues such as terrorism and organized crime.
Cessar is hopeful the community will give his peers a chance. He said many applicants left retirement to serve area schools, and that each guardian is qualified for the job.
“It really addresses a need in this state and in this country to protect our schools and our children,” he said. “I thoroughly believe in it, and I’m very excited to be here.”