Okeechobee takes steps toward having armed guardians

In an effort to increase the safety of local schoolchildren, the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office and the Okeechobee County School Board have decided to participate in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which was included in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act in March 2018. Participation in the program is voluntary, but if the school district chooses to participate, each guardian must be given a minimum of 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training, pass psychological evaluation, submit to and pass drug tests and complete certified diversity training.

According to the press release issued by the Florida Senate, classroom teachers are ineligible to participate in the program. Sheriff Noel E. Stephen explained the reason teachers are not eligible is because they would have to leave their students unattended in the event there was an active shooter emergency, and this would be unacceptable. Because of this, in a school system with approximately 1,500 employees, only about 200-300 would qualify. Sheriff Stephen hopes to have several guardians in each school by the time they finish the training program, and these guardians will act as built-in backups for the school resource officers.

The guardian program is named for assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who was killed during the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when he pushed a student out of the path of gunfire and shielded several students with his own body. Seventeen people were killed on that horrible day one year ago Thursday, and the goal of the guardian program is for a tragedy like that never to happen again.

The identities of the guardians will be known only to the sheriff’s office and the principals of the schools where the guardians work, and they will continue to work in their normal positions. Each guardian will receive a one-time, $500 stipend from funds allocated by Gov. Ron DeSantis for the program, but after that, any costs will be paid for by the volunteer or by the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Stephen explained all volunteers were put through interviews, a criminal background check, psychological testing and drug testing prior to beginning training. He and Training Supervisor Sgt. Michael Hazellief determined it would be best to do firearm training before continuing to other areas because if the candidates cannot meet the high standards set in the firearm training, there is no point in working on the other areas. Sheriff Stephen said a guardian must pass the firearms training at an 85percent pass rate — the same rate required to become an instructor — while a deputy may pass with an 80 percent pass rate.

The guardian training will include a total of 145 hours in a variety of firearm instruction, active shooter instruction, legal liability instruction, defensive tactics instruction and diversity training. The guardians are also required to take a 16-hour precision pistol course not required for deputies. In addition, guardians in Okeechobee County will be required to be requalified every quarter after they complete their firearm training, although the state requirement is only for yearly qualification.

“I’m responsible when that bullet leaves that muzzle,” said Sheriff Stephen. “I want them trained right.”

Sgt. Hazellief said the training they do on the computer is so realistic now, you wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it for yourself. It enables them to put the trainees through more realistic scenarios than the pop-out targets from back in the day. “The guardians are all taking it very seriously,” he said. “They are willing to give their lives to protect our children, which we commend them for.” Sgt. Hazellief has children in the Okeechobee school system and said, “We don’t put people in schools who don’t meet the standards.” He said what some people don’t realize is that the sooner a shooter is engaged, the sooner he can be stopped.

Sheriff Stephen said in order to implement this program, the sheriff’s office and the school district had to agree, and of the 67 counties in Florida, Okeechobee is one of only about 20 that have chosen to place guardians in their schools.

“I’m proud to stand behind this program,” Sgt. Hazellief said. “The sheriff is setting the bar high. It’s not about people just wanting to carry a gun on campus. They all used the words ‘our kids’ or ‘my kids.’ It’s about protecting the kids.”

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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