Alachua County School Board member April Griffin spoke with worried teachers and principals before voting in March against implementing the guardian program.
“They did not want us to go down that road,” Griffin said. “We just felt like we didn’t want to put one more burdened on our staff.”
It was a unanimous vote among the school board members to not put the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act into effect.
This may not be the last time, however, that Alachua will vote on the program that the state senate approved in March.
“I know we’re going to have to look at it in the future, depending on what the legislature does,” Griffin said. “I think that their intent is to increase the guardian program so it’s something you have to look at every year.”
Alachua County already had school resource officers (SROs) assigned to every school but added five to make the ratio of officers to schools 1-to-1, said Jackie Johnson, director of communications for Alachua County Public Schools.
Johnson said that the board members “believe that that needed to be something left to the trained professionals, and those are our school resource officers. We’re very pleased that law enforcement provides special training for the officers who are going to do that kind of work.”
Clay County, which voted in favor of the guardian program, did not hire everyday citizens.
“We didn’t go out there just looking for your average Joe,” said Bruce Harvin, director of safety and security for the Clay County School District. “We had a lot of people that were passionate about it and really wanted to do it, but really, we focused on those retired law enforcement officers, retired military.”
Thirty-three Clay County candidates went through 160 hours of intense training beginning on July 9. Twenty-nine of the candidates were certified by the local sheriff’s department and graduated on Aug. 10.
Clay County is one of 22 counties in the state to move forward with the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. The program, named after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School assistant football coach who died protecting students during the February shooting that left 17 dead, allows school personnel to go through law enforcement training and carry guns on campus.
The hired guardians’ experience averaged to 18 years in law enforcement, 15 years in the military, 26 years in fire rescue and four year in private armed security.
The guardians began their 188-day school contract on graduation day, and students returned to school on Aug. 14.
“Completely honest, it has run a lot smoother than I thought it was going to,” Harvin said. “Once school started back, I was really overwhelmed by how smoothly it ran.”
The program is costing the county around $980,000 a year with guardians being paid from $15.70 an hour to $17.08 an hour.
Before the program was implemented, Clay County had eight schools with SROs. Now, every public elementary, middle and high school will have either an assigned SRO or guardian, depending on whether the school is in an unincorporated area or a municipality.
“In the unincorporated areas, only elementary schools have guardians,” Harvin said. “In the junior and senior highs in the unincorporated areas, we hired Clay County Sheriff’s Office — a contract with them. They put an SRO in junior highs and senior highs.”
In the two municipalities, Green Cove and Orange Park, each school will have an SRO.
Harvin said that so far only one concern has surfaced: Parents wanting to know who the guardian is.
“We want those people to be behind the scenes and protecting the students. We don’t want them compromised,” he said. “Just rest assured that we have a guardian in this school, they are armed. By law, we have to have a gun in that school now, whether it’s by a SRO or guardian.”
The next step is to expand the program, he said. Clay County voters just passed an increase in property taxes to pay for school security. The tax increase will raise the safety budget by around $11 million a year, but the revenue won’t be seen until the tax goes into effect in 2020.
How Harvin’s department will use the money has not be determined but putting an SRO in every school or starting a school district police department has been discussed, he said. Expanding the guardian program is also an option.
“If it’s done right, it’s a great thing,” Harvin said about the program. “I honestly feel like it should’ve been done many years ago.”