Town hall meeting to discuss guns in schools

OKEECHOBEE — Should some school employees be allowed to carry guns?

Sheriff Noel Stephen and the Okeechobee County School Board want to know your opinion on this important school safety question.

A town hall meeting will be held Thursday, April 5, at 6 p.m. in the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse, 304 N.W. Second St.

The meeting will be broadcast live via the co.okeechobee.fl.us website. The video of the meeting will also be available online after the meeting.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act states: “For the protection and safety of school personnel, property, students and visitors, each district school board and school district superintendent shall partner with law enforcement agencies to establish or assign one or more safe-school officers at each school facility within the district by implementing any combination of the following options which best meets the needs of the school district.”

The options include:

• School resource officers from the county sheriff’s office; and/or,

• The district may appoint its own school safety officers; and/or,

• The school district may participate in the school marshal program (called the Coach Aaron Feis Guardianship Program) if such a program is established.

The legislation gives the sheriff the authority, if he so chooses, to established “a Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program to aid in the prevention or abatement of active assailant incidents on school premises.” A school guardian has no authority to act in any law enforcement capacity except to the extent necessary to prevent or abate an active assailant incident on a school premises. Excluded from participating in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program are individuals who exclusively perform classroom duties as classroom teachers.

According to the law, school employees who volunteer for the guardian program must:

• Hold a valid license issued under s. 790.06 (a concealed carry firearms permit).

• Complete 132 total hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training conducted by Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission-certified instructors, which must include: 80 hours of firearms instruction based on the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission’s Law Enforcement Academy training model, which must include at least 10 percent but no more than 20 percent more rounds fired than associated with academy training. Program participants must achieve an 85 percent pass rate on the firearms training; 16 hours of instruction in precision pistol; 8 hours of discretionary shooting instruction using state-of-the-art simulator exercises; 8 hours of instruction in active shooter or assailant scenarios; 8 hours of instruction in defensive tactics; 12 hours of instruction in legal issues.

• Pass a psychological evaluation administered by a psychologist licensed under chapter 490 and designated by the Department of Law Enforcement and submit the results of the evaluation to the sheriff’s office. The Department of Law Enforcement is authorized to provide the sheriff’s office with mental health and substance abuse data for compliance with this.

• Submit to and pass an initial drug test and subsequent random drug tests in accordance with the requirements of s. 112.0455 and the sheriff’s office.

• Successfully complete ongoing training, weapon inspection, and firearm qualification on at least an annual basis.

• Successfully complete at least 12 hours of a certified nationally recognized diversity training program.

There has been some confusion among members of the public regard to whether or not teachers would allowed to carry guns in schools. 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 services members and current or retired law enforcement officers.

Sheriff Stephen voiced his support of the program at the March 13 Okeechobee County School Board. The sheriff has stated that each school should have a certified law enforcement officer as the School Resource Officer (SRO), 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.

At the March 22 Okeechobee County Commission meeting, the sheriff said they don’t know how many eligible school employees will volunteer for the program, and of those who volunteer, how many will qualify and complete the training. Out of 100 potential volunteers, only three or four may complete the program and qualify to carry a gun in a school.

The Okeechobee County School Board is willing to consider the option of the Guardian Program, but wants more feedback from the public before they make that decision.

“Putting guns in our schools in the hands of someone who isn’t a trained police officer can be a very polarizing debate,” stated Okeechobee County School Board Member Jill Holcomb said. “If the community, students and parents don’t want this and we hear a lot of pushback, 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.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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