TAMPA, Fla. — It’s a controversial school safety measure born out of tragedy. But five years after armed school guardians became part of Florida’s school security landscape, we wanted to know, is it working?
“Absolutely,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who implemented a guardian in his county a few years before the Parkland shooting.
His program, he said, became the basis for the state’s guardian program.
“Yes,” Hillsborough County School Police Chief John Newman said without hesitation.
“Well, how many mass casualty or active assailant events have we had at a school since Stoneman Douglas? None,” replied Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
All three Florida law enforcement leaders are big supporters of the Coach Aaron Feis school guardian program. The program was named after one of the adults killed during the deadly shooting spree on Valentine’s Day 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, FL.
It gives school districts the option to hire less-costly armed guards in place of law enforcement or school resource officers for campuses. A year after it was approved, the program expanded to include teachers who could be armed while working on campus.
The program was created as a more affordable option to a law passed in response to the Parkland shooting, which requires districts to have at least one-armed person on every school campus to protect students and employees in the event of an active shooter.
“It’s working out well. We need more of them,” said Sheriff Gualtieri, who also leads the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission. The commission was formed after Parkland to analyze the failures that led to the shooting. The group also provides recommendations on ways to enhance school security. For Gualtieri, school guardians have always been a no-brainer.
“If you don’t have that armed person with a gun on these campuses, then we’re being irresponsible, and we’re not being honest, and we’re leaving a campus vulnerable. Why would we do that,” he asked Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone during a recent interview.
Today, school guardians are being used in 46 school districts in Florida, representing more than half of the districts in the state. Recently, Florida’s Education Secretary, Manny Diaz, said he wants the program to expand by increasing the number of guardians on campuses and extending the guardian program to private schools in the state.
Hillsborough County has 385 school guardians who are stationed at elementary and charter schools. Law enforcement officers or school resource officers cover middle and high schools.
“The genius in the guardian program is whether you’re a real small county or an extra-large county like Hillsborough County, you can take the definition and apply it to your resources and to your finances and implement something that works for your district,” explained Chief Newman.
But while Chief Newman, Sheriff Gualtieri, and Sheriff Judd are quick to tout the program as a success in Florida, we discovered measuring the impact of school guardians on campus safety is based on information that doesn’t exist or is left largely out of the public eye.
When asked how he measures the success of school guardians on campus,
Chief Newman replied, “You can’t, really, absent a bad event.”
Polk’s Sheriff Judd said, “Number one, have we had an active assailant? Number two is there a level of comfort with the parents, absolutely.”
“You’re trying to measure an intangible, and that is, sometimes, hard to do. But when you look at it over a period, over five years, we haven’t had any major events so what we’re doing is working,” explained Sheriff Gualtieri who added the school guardian program is just one component of the state’s more comprehensive approach to school safety and security adopted as part of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act.
But Ohio-based school security expert Ken Trump cautions on how Florida is measuring the success of its program.
“We can’t define school safety in the negative saying a school is safe because we haven't had a shooting,” he explained.
That’s because, Trump said, measuring the impact of school guardians or any safe-school officer on campus boils down to data, and it's limited.
“We're just seeing mixed research coming out on school resource officers, trained permission police officers. There's very little, if any, evaluation on school guardian programs,” Trump said.
In Florida, what is available is largely kept secret.
After the Parkland shooting and the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, Florida’s Department of Education (FDOE) required school districts to notify the state’s Office of Safe Schools within 72 hours if a safe-school officer, which includes school guardians, engages in misconduct that leads to discipline or fires their gun outside of training.
According to the FDOE, since 2020 about 100 reports have been filed with the state. But any details of these events are being kept confidential by the FDOE. Despite multiple requests, the state agency has refused to release to us even basic details of any incidents.
According to an emailed response to us from an FDOE spokesperson, any records pertaining to safe-school officers are considered part of “security plans,” which are confidential and exempt from public disclosure, according to the FDOE.
Sheriff Gualtieri doesn’t believe these records should be kept from the public.
“I see no reason why that information can’t be disclosed or shouldn’t be disclosed,” he told us.
When we sought details from school districts, most school districts also refused to release us any records about their safe-school officer issues. Some districts told us the FDOE advised them not to release any details because the information was exempt.
But a few did.
Of those who responded and sent us copies of discipline records, the information shows the state’s school guardian program hasn’t evolved without some problems.
In Hillsborough County, since the district started using guardians in 2019, about a half-dozen guardians have been written up. According to records provided to us by Chief Newman, one school guardian was fired after being charged with sexual battery on a student, and two more guardians were eventually terminated for leaving campus during their shifts.
Citrus and Lake County school districts reported a guardian who accidentally fired their gun or left it unattended.
Still statewide, issues with school guardians represent a small fraction of the more than 4-thousand safe-school officers and guardians patrolling Florida schools
But Trump said the numbers aren’t enough to deem Florida’s program a success.
“We can't say that school guardian programs are not working. We can't say that they are working perfectly or overall working well because we don't have full data,” he said.
“So really, the only measurement of success for this program is the absence of an event,” Reporter Katie LaGrone asked Sheriff Gualtieri.
“That’s the way you’re characterizing it,” the Sheriff replied. “What other information do you want? What other information do you need? To a degree, you’re looking for information that can’t exist,” he said.