Community members debate armed school guardian program

OKEECHOBEE — Community members packed the Okeechobee County commission meeting room in the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse on April 5, for the Okeechobee County School Board’s workshop on the Coach Aaron Feis Guardianship Program. While the meeting had been advertised for public comment, most of those who filled the seats and stood along the back wall of the meeting room came to listen.

School Board Chair Jill Holcomb explained that no action can be taken at a workshop. The gathering was for information only. She said the Guardian program will also be on the agenda on the April 10 school board meeting at 6 p.m. at the Okeechobee School Board office, and members of the public are also welcome at that meeting.

“We encourage your input,” she said. “We want well-thought-out ideas and opinions.”

“Some people, their mind may not be made up yet. They want to know what else we are doing to keep our schools safe, to keep our students safe,” said Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy.

Safety measures

He said some school safety measures are already in place and more are planned.

• Comprehensive safety plans have been developed for the district and at each school site.

• Employee or visitor identification badges are required at each school. Employees are very proactive when they see someone who doesn’t have a badge, said the superintendent.

• All of the classroom doors are locked.

• Schools conduct routine status checks on emergency communication devices including radio, intercom and cell phones.

• Safety drills are conducted at all schools. The sheriff’s office conducted an active shooter drill on the Osceola Middle School campus during spring break.

• Security cameras have been installed.

• School resource officers (SROs) have been assigned to Okeechobee High School, Osceola Middle School, Yearling Middle School, Okeechobee Freshman Camps and Okeechobee Achievement Academy. The SROs also visit the elementary schools. For the next school year, the sheriff plans to add SROs in the elementary schools and second SRO for the high school.

• The sheriff’s office provides training in the schools such as the DARE program (which was originally about drug abuse resistance, but now focuses on making good decisions) and stranger-danger. They also provide training in staying safe online. Next year the schools will have a comprehensive anti-bullying program.

• A Crimestopper hot line is widely used to relay tips to law enforcement.

• School threat assessment team includes law enforcement licensed mental health counselors and school personnel.

• The schools conduct staff training on how each teacher would respond in the case of an active shooter.

Mr. Kenworthy said school officials and law enforcement personnel conducted security walk-throughs of each school to look for any problem areas.

“The objective is for every school to have a single point of entry,” he said. Some schools are in better shape than others, he explained.

Most students feel safe

He added the school board plans to install perimeter fencing around all of the schools to keep outsiders out and for crowd control on campus.

Annual surveys show most Okeechobee County students, teachers and parents consider the county’s school safe, he shared.

When students were asked if they feel safe at school, 72 percent responded ‘yes’.

In the same survey, 94 percent of teachers said they feel safe, and 89 percent of parents feel the county schools are safe.

Mr. Kenworthy said the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian program is an option the board can consider. It’s completely voluntary, and in order to put it in place, the school board and the sheriff would have to agree. Participation in the program by school employees would also be voluntary.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about this program and the thought that we are going to arm each teacher who wants to wield a gun, and that is not true,” he said, pointing out that classroom teachers are excluded from the program, with the exception of former and current law enforcement, military service members and JROTC teachers. He said if a coach also teaches a class, that coach is considered a teacher and will be excluded.

Those who are eligible to volunteer, include principals, assistant principals, resource specialists, deans, guidance counselors, support personnel, media specialists and coaches who are not classroom teachers.

“I am in support of this in addition to an SRO in schools,” said Sheriff Noel Stephen. “I feel numbers will be few but that I will be able to take those few and train them.

“I will not allow anybody to be checked off (to carry a gun) until they meet the qualifications,” he said.

Community supports armed guardian concept

Mr. Kenworthy said an online survey found most local residents support the idea of the guardian program.

In an online survey taken earlier in the week:

• 150 high school students responded with 64 percent in favor of the program;

• 792 parents responded with 79 percent in favor;

• 409 school employees responded with 68 percent in favor;

• 172 other community members responded with 65 percent in favor.

Overall, the responses were 72 percent in favor of the guardian program.

The school board welcomed public comment, but only a few people voiced opinions. The meeting was scheduled to last until everyone had a chance to speak or until 8 p.m., whichever came first. The meeting ended at just after 7 p.m.

“This is a very difficult issue. We all want a safe school district,” said Frank Peterman, representing the teachers’ union.

“Before we go down this path, I think we need to ask ourselves some questions,” he continued. He wondered if the required 132 hours of training required were enough for a person who will have to act quickly in a life or death situation, pointing out that law enforcement officers receive more than 800 hours of training.

“It’s all good and fine if a teacher shoots the right person at the right time and handles the situation,” he said. “But if they miss and hit a student or a staff member or somebody in our community, how are we going to explain that?”

He also asked how, in an active shooter situation, law enforcement officers responding to the scene will know who the guardians are.

Mr. Peterman also questioned if the school system would have sufficient insurance if someone is shot.

“My whole life has been guns,” said Gordie Peer, whose colorful career included serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, traveling with wild west shows, and working as a stunt man in western movies.

He said he believes in the Second Amendment, but pointed out that it was written when “everybody carried a muzzle loader.”

Mr. Peer said there’s a big difference between shooting a gun at a target and actually pointing a gun at another human being.

“There’s probably very few people in this room who have ever pointed a gun at somebody and shot them,” he said.

“When you pull up and aim that gun, if you hesitate, that hesitation is going to get you killed,” said Mr. Peer.

In the case of an armed school employee, the shooter “might be one of their students.

They have to point a gun at them and shoot one of them? I don’t think that is something they should be asked to do,” he said.

Mr. Peer said the problem teens are often boys who do not have a strong father figure in their lives.

“Those boys need guidance,” he said.

“We need to teach that. They need to learn in school a little bit of how to raise a family,” he said.

“We need to start back and train our people, not training them to shoot and arm more people.

“I made my living with guns,” he said. “We need to think real strong about this.”

“We are not arming our teachers. We are arming the staff,” said Kenny Sarros.

“I have faith in the school board. I have faith in my kids’ teachers and I have faith in our sheriff to implement this program,” he said.

“Nothing is 100 percent,” Mr. Sarros said. “If evil wants to find a way, it is going to find a way.

“We are taking a step here to protect our children,” he said. “We need to protect our children and our teachers.”

“A couple of weeks ago we had an excellent program given by the sheriff’s department, said classroom teacher Sharon Suits.

“It was an eye opener to a lot of people,” she said. “A group of us in the same area on campus, got together and started talking about what can we do.

“We knew we had to have some kind of plan to protect our students,” she said.

“That is our first priority. Education is high up there, but safety has got to be our first concern.

She said the guardian program “will give us is that little bit of an edge.”

She said every second that a guardian could save during an active shooter incident could mean life or death.

The program “makes our kids just a little bit safer,” said Ms. Suits.

“If one child is saved in the space of 30 seconds, that is a huge, huge savings,” he continued.

“Do we worry about those decisions people will have to make? Sure. I think this is a big step toward giving us more tools to make sure our kids are that much safer,” she said.

“This legislation was done very quickly and with a lot of emotion,” said City of Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford.

“I like his (the sheriff’s) idea that if this is enacted it will be a supplement or a backup to the SRO program,” said the mayor.

“You have a very tough decision because of the way the legislature did this,” he said.

“A lot of us are having to make tough decisions,” he said. “I encourage you to take the sheriff’s recommendation and make this supplemental to the SRO program.”

Tommy Harden pointed out that while law enforcement training is 800 hours, actual shooting time on the range is about 48 hours.

Angela Williams said she went to school in Okeechobee and her children go to school here now.

She said after the Parkland shooting, her autistic son was afraid to go to school. She said he did go back to school, and after having a good few days, there was a lockdown incident at the school. She said her son told her that to keep the school safe, they need gates at the school, and they need trained people … “people like you and dad who are trained in shooting.”

She said she is confident the sheriff’s department would do an exemplary job in training the guardians.

“I stand behind Noel 150 percent,” she said.

“We have people with concealed weapons walking among us all the time,” she added.

Those with concealed carry permits might have guns in movie theaters and shopping malls where there are children.

“Why not have teachers armed?” she asked. “If something happens, at least we’ve stood up, we’ve been proactive and we’d have the teachers there with the training.”

Anita Nunez said she would be comfortable with armed school employees who were properly screened and trained.

“Don’t think this doesn’t weigh lightly on our hearts,” said school board member Joe Arnold.

“It’s our job from the time the bus drivers pick them up to the time they drop them off to protect those children and teach them,” said Mr. Arnold.

“We have to weigh every option and their safety is a priority. Whatever policy we choose at the end of the day I want you to know that those students are what we are focusing on,” he said.

“It is very evident this community cares about the children,” said Mrs. Holcomb. “We encourage you to continue thinking about this.”

She said the guardian program will be discussed again at school board meetings before a final decision is made, and that they welcome continued feedback from the community.

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