Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Armed ‘guardians’ could be coming to Broward schools

Scott Travis Sun Sentinel June 12, 2018

Armed security guards are likely to be added at Broward County schools this fall in order to meet requirements of a new state law.

Half of Broward County’s 234 district-run schools don’t have a full-time police officer, putting them in danger of failing to comply with a law passed by the Legislature in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The law requires every school to have at least one armed person on campus.

In a workshop Monday, most School Board members voiced support for hiring an armed “guardian,” which would be a non-sworn security guard, for any schools that don’t have a police officer. Most would work in elementary schools. Several board members say they would prefer to only hire retired police officers or military veterans.

“At the end of the day, our community has expectations. They want to hear how are you going to get this done,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said. “We’ve got to explore every option available.”

State law previously authorized only sworn law enforcement to carry guns. But the new law establishes the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian program, which allows certain employees to be armed if they train with the local Sheriff’s Office. Most classroom teachers would be ineligible, but districts can arm administrators, coaches, librarians, ROTC instructors and security personnel.

The Broward School Board voted in April not to participate in the program, saying it wanted only sworn police officers. That decision prevented the district from getting a share of $67 million in state dollars for training and supplements. The School Board plans to vote later this month to rescind that.

The district’s share wouldn’t be enough for new employees, but the district also received an additional $7 million from the state to hire more school resource officers.

Other school districts, such as Pinellas County, are using their school resource officer allocations to hire people to serve specifically as guardians. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the cost for a guardian is about $40,000, about a quarter of the cost of a fully equipped police officer.

Under a similar plan, the Broward school district would not arm existing employees.

“This would be someone whose unique role would be to serve as guardian,” said Jeff Moquin, chief of staff for Runcie.

School Board member Robin Bartleman said she didn’t like the idea, but felt she has no other choice, based on state law.

“I only want my daughter to attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer just like I’d only want certified medical professionals to take a scalpel to her,” Bartleman said.

Another potential problem is insurance. General Counsel Barbara Myrick said several small Florida school districts were told that their insurance provider wouldn’t cover them if anyone other than law enforcement is armed at schools.

Several School Board members also voiced interest in creating a school district police force, but they say that’s not likely to happen by the time school starts again.

Under the current agreement for school resource officers, cities decide how many police officers or Sheriff’s deputies they want to fund in each school, with the school district paying $46,000 and the cities paying the remaining costs. Some cities, such as Fort Lauderdale and Oakland Park, don’t pay for officers in elementary schools. Others, including Hollywood, Plantation and Pompano Beach, pay for one officer for two or three elementary schools.

School district officials would prefer for city governments to continue subsidizing the costs of the additional officers needed to comply with the law. But even if they do, the county faces a shortage of about 300 police officers and may not be able fill all the positions, Moquin said.

The district is offering to increase its share to $52,000 per officer and first allow cities to provide additional police officers. For those that don’t, the school district would use the $52,000 to hire a guardian.

The school district is asking voters to approve a property tax increase Aug. 28, which would raise $93 million a year for more police officers and teacher raises, but that money wouldn’t be available until the 2019-20 school year.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office would train the guardians, using money the state is providing as part of the new law.

Gualtieri, who heads a commission investigating the Stoneman Douglas tragedy, said the state law is not optional, and he gave an ominous warning Friday to any school board members and administrators who plan to start school this August without a police officer or armed guardian.

“If you end up with a shooting, and you end up with a bunch of dead 7-year-olds, and you think you’re going to survive it, you won’t and you shouldn’t,” he said. “You should resign, pack your bags. Go home. You’re done.”

Whether Broward schools can create the guardian positions, hire employees and train them in time for the start of school remains to be seen.

“All I can tell you is we’re going to try as hard as we can,” Runcie said after the meeting. “If we can’t, we need to figure out what kind of interim solution we can put in place.”

stravis@sun-sentinel.com, 561-243-6637 or Twitter @smtravis

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