Should school employees carry guns?

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County school district is debating on whether to implement the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, the amendment in Senate Bill 7026 that allows school staff members to carry firearms, and is seeking input from the community.

In order to gather more feedback from parents and teachers in Okeechobee, as well as to help clarify what the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian program and SB 7026 will entail, the Okeechobee school district will be holding a public workshop at 6 p.m. on April 5 at the Okeechobee County Courthouse in the County Commission Chambers.

Okeechobee County School Board Chairperson Jill Holcomb explained what she hopes to get from the workshop.

“We’re looking for a really open and honest discussion with our community members about how they feel about the guardian program,” said Mrs. Holcomb. “Do they think it’s a good idea and makes schools safer? Do they feel it’s not a good idea and that school employees aren’t policemen and they shouldn’t be carrying weapons? We want to hear their opinions and concerns, that way we can make a really informed decision.”

Misinformation about the guardian program has been rampant since it was signed into law by Florida governor Rick Scott on March 9, with some believing it gave teachers the ability to carry a firearm while on school grounds.

In fact, SB 7026 explicitly forbids any classroom teachers or instructors from joining the guardian program, with exceptions made for those involved in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), current or retired armed service members and current or retired law enforcement officers. Non-teaching staff would be permitted to join. Members of the guardian program would be required to complete 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training, pass psychological evaluation, submit to and pass drug tests; and complete certified diversity training.

Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen would be responsible for issuing the school guardian certificate to individuals who apply and meet the requirements. The bill also requires the local sheriff to maintain documentation of weapon and equipment inspections, as well as the training, certification, inspection, and qualification records of each school guardian.

Sheriff Stephen has voiced his support of the program at the monthly Okeechobee County School Board meeting held on March 13. The sheriff has stated that each school should have certified law enforcement officers as the School Resource Officer, and the guardians would be there to back up the SROs when needed. He has also stated that he would prefer to keep the identity of the guardians confidential.

“Putting guns in our schools in the hands of someone who isn’t a trained police officer can be a very polarizing debate,” Mrs. Holcomb said. “If the community, students and parents don’t want this and we hear a lot of push back, it’s not something I would do. I have no interest in pushing something that the community doesn’t want. I’m really looking forward to hearing the thoughts and opinions that come out of the workshop.”

If you’re unable to attend the meeting, it will be broadcast live on the Okeechobee County government website http://www.co.okeechobee.fl.us/.

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

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