School board interested in guardian program

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Schools may participate in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardianship Program. Community input is being sought

At the monthly Okeechobee School Board meeting on March 13, Superintendent Ken Kenworthy, board members and Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen discussed school safety as well as the new regulations signed into law by Florida Governor Rick Scott.

Mr. Kenworthy began the meeting with a presentation to the school board on precautions the school district has taken in reaction to the Stoneman Douglas school shooting in February as well as precautions that the school district have already had in place.

“We’ve had comprehensive safety plans in place for the district as well as for each school site with assigned roles for individuals in the event of any type of crisis on campus,” Mr. Kenworthy explained.

Schools also employ a badge system for employees and visitors. These systems are randomly tested at each school. The district also randomly tests its school’s check out procedures to see if someone can come in and take a student off campus. Mr. Kenworthy reported that schools have been very diligent in passing all tests.

The school district has in place a threat assessment procedure to assess any threats made. First the type of threat is analyzed, whether a threat to self or to others, then the student’s demeanor, appearance, sleep patterns and emotions are all considered by the threat assessment team. The team is comprised of law enforcement, a licensed mental health counselor and school personnel. Any time a threat is communicated, this team meets to conduct an assessment.

“One of the things that we need to get across to our community,” said Mr. Kenworthy, “is that when you hear a threat, communicate that threat to law enforcement or to school officials. Posts on Facebook do very little except create panic in most cases where there doesn’t need to be.”

Mr. Kenworthy then went through the new regulations in Senate Bill 7026 that directly impact schools, particularly the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which would arm some school personnel if both the local school district and sheriff’s department agree to do so.

School board member Joe Arnold inquired if the guardian program would be a hindrance to Sheriff Stephen and his school resource officers (SRO).

“If the board decides to pursue the guardian program, I would not be against it,” answered Sheriff Stephen. “I feel it could be very beneficial to my SROs to have another gun in the school, to have a backup when they’re dealing with a threat. And the fewer who know who that person is the better off we’re going to be, similar to the air marshal program. Because my SROs in uniform are the ones with the target on their front, and back.”

Board member Joe Arnold suggested moving forward with the guardian program in Okeechobee County, with board Vice Chairwoman Dixie Ball agreeing saying that she was more comfortable with the program now that it clearly defines what a guardian is and who can become one.

Board Chairwoman Jill Holcomb voiced her desire to hear feedback from the Okeechobee community on the guardian program.

“I would like to hear from administrators, teachers, and parents,” said Mrs. Holcomb. “I would feel a little more comfortable knowing what the thoughts of our community members are regarding this. I don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction and push something through then the next thing you know there are unintended consequences. I want to be able to say I took my time, thought about it, and I was able to talk to everyone who wanted to talk about it.”

The school board tentatively scheduled a workshop to hear public opinions on the guardian program for 6 p.m. on April 5. They discussed either hosting the workshop at the County Commissioner Chambers in the historic courthouse, or if not possible there, in the Okeechobee High School lecture hall.

Sheriff Noel Stephen said he will need to hire additional SROs to comply with the SB 7026 requirement to have a school safety officer at every school. He plans to have a total of 12 to have a relief factor if one SRO is out. Costs of the new SROs are estimated to be $803,937 in total. The Florida Department of Education Safe School Funds will provide $573,333 to cover costs. Under the current contract, the school district pays 50 percent of 10 months of the SRO’s costs, with the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office covering the other 50 percent for 10 months and 100 percent of the salary for two months.

Sheriff Stephen said he will request an increase in his budget at the county commission meeting on March 22.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment