County supports gun rights, armed school personnel

OKEECHOBEE — Guns were on the agenda at the Jan. 8 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission.

By special resolution, Okeechobee County became a Second Amendment Sanctuary County. The commissioners also approved the sheriff’s request to use state grant funding for the armed school guardians program.

“The Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners hereby declares Okeechobee County as a Second Amendment Sanctuary in order to preserve for the People of, on, and in Okeechobee County, their rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America,” the resolution states. “The Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners hereby declares and affirms its support for the rights, freedoms and liberties of the People of Okeechobee County guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America.”

The Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution passed unanimously with no comments from the commissioners or the public.

The commissioners were also united in their support for the armed school guardians program, although some concerns were voiced about funding.

Sheriff Noel Stephen explained the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program funding comes from the Safe Schools Grant. The program allows school personnel who pass background checks and complete special training to carry concealed weapons.

For Okeechobee County schools, the sheriff’s office provides the training. The Department of Education Grant of $203,623 covers funding for salaries of the OCSO officers who train the guardians in the classroom and on the firing line; holsters, concealment clothing, ballistic vests, special badges with wallets and other equipment for guardians; ammunition; operating supplies for the range such as hearing protection, targets and storage safes; cost for an attorney to provide classroom instruction on legal issues; drug screenings; psych evaluations; background investigations; use fees for the gun range; professional liability insurance for each guardian; and a one-time stipend of $500 paid to each guardian.

When it was first established, the guardian program was only open to non-instructional personnel unless they were retired military or law enforcement. Last year, the Florida Legislature approved a change that allows instructional personnel to be guardians. In July 2019, the Okeechobee County School Board voted to allow classroom teachers in the guardian program.

Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said he is concerned that, if the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office takes over responsibility for the guardian program, the financial burden will fall on the county taxpayers if the state funding does not continue.

“I don’t think you should have the fiscal responsibility because they (the school board) made the decision to have the guardian program,” said Chairman Burroughs.

“It’s a mutual agreement to do this,” said the sheriff. “Our children are our number one asset, and whatever we can do to secure them is the best thing to do.”

Commissioner Brad Goodbread noted the grant from the Florida Department of Education is only for one year.

“If funding is not provided next year, we may not be able to afford it,” he said. “We’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it.”

County Attorney Wade Vose said the OSCO contract with the school board gives the sheriff the option of canceling at any time.

“I think we all know we can’t rely on the state,” agreed the sheriff. He added once the guardians are trained, the recurring costs are minimal.

The sheriff said while the DOE made grant funding available for the guardian program, only a few sheriffs applied.

“The Guardian program is added redundancy to our front line School Resource Officers,” said the sheriff. He compared it to air marshals on airplanes. They aren’t in uniform. They are unknown, except to law enforcement officials and school administrators.

“I have a lot of respect for you to stick your neck out when a lot of the other sheriffs would not do it,” Commissioner Bryant Culpepper told the sheriff. He said the benefits of the program far outweigh the costs.

Commissioner Kelly Owens offered a public thanks to those people who work for the school system who are guardians.

“While we can’t recognize them individually because it’s important there is anonymity to what they are doing, I do want to let them know how grateful I am that they are willing to do this,” she said.

The Guardian program is named for assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who was killed during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, when he pushed a student out of the path of gunfire and shielded several students with his own body.

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