District may allow armed teachers

OKEECHOBEE — Results from a recent survey conducted by the Okeechobee County School District were discussed at the July 24 Okeechobee County School Board meeting.

The school district was seeking opinions from parents, students and staff on expanding the guardian program to include teachers in classrooms. Currently only non-instructional staff can opt to join the guardian program and carry a firearm on campus.

The results showed that of the 879 people who voted in the survey, 62 percent wanted to expand the program to teachers while 38 percent were not in favor.

The majority of respondents to the survey were parents, followed by school district employees and community members. Students had the smallest amount of responses to the survey, but they were easily the most divided of all the groups.

Forty-seven percent of students said “yes” to allowing teachers to carry firearms while 53% said “no.” In contrast, parents had the highest percentage of any group approving the measure with 68% saying “yes” to allowing teachers in the guardian program.

“Given that recent expansion of the guardian program, we need direction from you on whether or not we should move forward and open that up or if we should keep things as they are,” said Okeechobee Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy to school board members after going through the survey results.

Board member Melisa Jahner asked how the weapon would be concealed given the close proximity teachers have with students on a day-to-day basis. Mr. Kenworthy replied current guardians carry their weapon behind their belt while some use an ankle or calf holster. Board member Malissa Morgan followed up by asking if teachers are required to have the weapon secured on their body or if they could have it in a safe location in the classroom, and Mr. Kenworthy confirmed the teacher would be required to have the gun on their person.

Board member Joe Arnold mentioned he spoke with Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen and reported that the sheriff seemed comfortable with expanding the program.

“I’ll say that with the level of training that is included with this that I’m comfortable with this program as well,” explained Mr. Arnold. “I don’t like being put in this position. However, at the end of the day when it comes to the safety of our children, we need to consider all of our options.”

To be eligible to join the guardian program, a teacher must already have a concealed carry permit. They’ll have to go through 132 hours of firearm safety by certified instructors, 80 hours of firearm instruction, 16 hours of precision pistol training, eight hours of instruction with a simulator, eight hours of active shooter scenario instruction, eight hours of instruction in defensive tactics and 12 hours instruction on legal issues. They must also pass a psychological evaluation, and an additional drug test along with random drug tests throughout the year. Guardians would have to complete ongoing training on at least an annual basis.

Mr. Kenworthy also explained that if the program was expanded to teachers, all who wished to volunteer to be a guardian will still have to be approved by both Superintendent Kenworthy and Sheriff Stephen before moving forward with training. “I did have a little bit of concern with the student responses,” said board member Jill Holcomb at the meeting. “I’m a little surprised by that. It does give me some pause that it’s very close to fifty-fifty for the students. But the overwhelming ‘yes’ from the parents and community members shows me how much confidence they have that when they send their students to our school they want to make sure they can return safely. Those responses helped me make the decision going forward that I’m comfortable with it.”

School board members voted and approved a motion giving Mr. Kenworthy the approval to move forward with the process of allowing teachers to join the guardian program. All board members were in favor. A new policy will be written with the new expansion included, which will then be advertised and finally voted on by the school board in an upcoming meeting.

Only 25 of Florida’s 67 school districts originally joined the first phase of the guardian program which armed school staff, and that number may be even lower for this expansion. Many of the largest school districts in Florida have turned down the opportunity to expand the guardian program to teachers. The Pinellas County School Board approved non-instructional school staff to join the guardian program, but there, Superintendent Michael Grego has said the district would be sticking with police and trained school security officer instead of arming teachers.

In October of last year, a Pinellas County substitute teacher was fired after a loaded gun flew out of his pants and landed in front of students when he performed a backflip.

While that teacher had a concealed carry permit, he wasn’t legally allowed to carry his weapon in school and hadn’t gone through the extensive training that new teachers joining the guardian program will go through.

Florida is joining eight other states that allow teachers to carry a firearm on campus. Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming all allow teachers and school staff to carry a firearm, though in some cases the teacher may need the district’s approval.

The Okeechobee County School Board is scheduled to have a final vote approving the new policy at its September meeting.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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