ECB Publishing, Inc.
In March of 2018, a little over a month after the tragic events of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Governor Rick Scott signed and approved SB 7026, which established the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.
Within that act, authorizations were given to school districts and sheriffs’ offices to establish the Coach Aaron Feis Guardianship Program, which would permit non-instructional school personnel to receive the training and licensing that would allow them to carry firearms on the school's campus.
On April 9, 2018, the Jefferson County School Board members voted unanimously against arming non-instructional staff within Jefferson County schools.
During the 2019 Florida Legislative Session, the guardianship program came back up before Florida senators, this time with expanding opportunities for school districts to arm school staff.
In the refurbished Senate Bill 7030, districts would be allowed to equip teachers with the training needed to carry firearms on campus.
Additional changes in SB 7030, when compared to SB 7026, signified that Florida sheriffs will no longer be expected to provide in-house training for school staff and teachers, but instead, sheriffs will be permitted to outsource the training – should a school district decide to arm their school's faculty and teachers.
With these new inclusions to the 2018 bill and safety act, Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools Marianne Arbulu affirms that the Jefferson County School District had to reevaluate their previous decision.
However, the district's thoughts on the matter remained much the same as last year's vote by school board members.
“We resurfaced the question, do we still have the same feeling about the guardian program? Are we all on the same page?” said Arbulu. “And the answer was yes. We don't need to arm teachers. We have the coverage that we need. We want law enforcement to be the only ones with guns on campus.”
“Last year, when the safety bill came out, we met as a group with law enforcement, with Somerset administration, myself and school board members and determined that we did not want to opt into the guardian program,” adds Arbulu.
That decision was made, Arbulu said, for two reasons, the first being that the district felt as if law enforcement officers were the best characters to be carrying firearms on campus. Secondly, the public safety act enacted by the Florida Senate included a distribution of additional funds for the school districts to use on employing more school resource officers (SROs) at their school campuses. With those additional funds, Jefferson Somerset was able to incorporate the aid of a second SRO at the K-12 campus, and the need for armed teachers as a security measure seemed less necessary.
“We are very fortunate that we have two school resource officers currently assigned to the school here in Jefferson County. That alone enhances our students' safety,” says Sheriff Mac McNeill. “I feel confident that we have an adequate law enforcement presence on campus.”
According to Sheriff McNeill, the proximity of the school to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office (JCSO) adds additional safety and emergency response aspects to Jefferson Somerset.
As the two locations are only a few minutes apart, response time – in the event of an emergency – is severely shortened; when there is an emergency, officers can get to the school in as little as five minutes.
According to Superintendent Arbulu, the deployment of teachers and school staff as armed guardians is more beneficial to larger school districts than it is for smaller districts with fewer schools.
“It's a function of money. If you are a school district with 300 schools, you need the guardian program or some hybridized version of it, because you simply cannot afford to put law enforcement on every campus at the rate you need,” said Arbulu.
In a larger school district with more students and more schools, who in turn need more SROs to be on campus, there are not enough spare officers within the local sheriff's office to staff and protect the schools.
With only one school using JCSO's school resource officers, that is not a problem Jefferson County is facing.
With that being said, Arbulu cites that she has not observed any overwhelming support within the realm of Florida school districts for armed teachers.
“I have not actually heard anyone in favor of arming teachers,” said Arbulu. “I think there is overwhelming support for keeping guns out of the classroom.”
Nevertheless, as charter and private schools, Jefferson Somerset and Aucilla Christian Academy do not have to abide by the guardianship ruling set by the school district, but can make their own decision when it comes to arming teachers and faculty.
That being said, Jefferson Somerset Principal Cory Oliver is not in favor of arming teachers at his school.
Principal Oliver mentioned the videos taken during the shooting, where trained law enforcement officers were not sure how to respond to the active shooter scenario, and expressed concerns that should teachers be armed, they would not be equipped to handle an active shooter scenario.
For law enforcement officers, updated training is an aspect of the job; deputies and officers in Jefferson County have been given simulation exercises and on-campus exercises, but Principal Oliver wondered how much frequent training would be given to armed teachers and school faculty.
“At what point would there ever be any legitimate training? You'll have all these people running around with guns strapped to them, with no significant training. Even if they have to pass a class, that's not real training – it's not real combat. When it hits a fan, there's no way to tell how they will react,” said Oliver.
Outside of even the occasion of an active shooter, Oliver expressed concerns regarding the presence of guns on campus and students' potential access to the firearms.
“Imagine having a bunch of guns on campus,” stated Principal Oliver before addressing concerns about children taking guns off of teachers or a teacher using unnecessary violence on a student. “Being a teacher isn't easy; it's a stressful job. I don't think they need a gun.”
While Principal Oliver is opposed to equipping teachers with guns, he did state that Jefferson Somerset has taken additional security measures of their own to ensure student safety.
One such measure is the hiring of a private security agency, DSI Security Services.
The security company serves over 15 states and has added an additional level of experienced, trained security for teachers, students and staff at Jefferson Somerset.
“Having an outside, trained, security force that is accountable to its own organization is something I felt was important to have,” said Principal Oliver. “While the kids still don't like having security guards walking around and telling them to go to class, they are all on the same page that this is 10 times better than any of the guards they've had before. It's really worked out well for us.”
However, DSI's detail at Jefferson Somerset doesn't fall under the guardianship program's allotted school safety monies, which means the school pays for the guards out-of-pocket from their operating budget.
While Principal Oliver would like to see DSI become certified as a Coach Aaron Feis Guardianship Program-approved company so that the program's allotted funds can go towards covering the extra security, Oliver calls the security staff “a necessity” and plans to continue employing them, even if it costs Jefferson Somerset.
“You got to have people out there that are talking some sense into [the kids],” said Oliver. “You don't solve conflict with more conflict or more threats of violence. I think building relationships is the most important thing we can do for our kids; putting compassionate people in front of them to build those relationships is key.”
Principal Oliver believes that the formation of relationships between adults who serve as positive role models and Jefferson County students is crucial in defeating the negative influences of violent and dramatic entertainment and media.
“These days, kids watch too much reality TV and think that's the way you're supposed to talk to each other, that you solve a problem through violence,” said Oliver, adding that kids are fed false social realities from the internet, YouTube, television, movies and music. “[School] is not where you solve your problems. This is not where you come to pick a fight. This isn't where you come to sell drugs. If you really want to start turning a community around, this is where it has to start.”
While the Jefferson County School District has made this decision and put it to a vote, Superintendent Arbulu says the decision is hardly concrete.
Should a future school board decide to revoke the current decision by opting into the guardianship program and arming teachers or school staff, that is an opportunity future boards will be able to explore.
However, “I don't really see that happening,” said Arbulu, before adding: “Not every county has had their leadership on the same page. We've really been blessed that we are all really kinda managing this in the way it was intended – working as a team.”
ECB Publishing, Inc. reached out to Aucilla Christian Academy (ACA) to obtain statements from the school as to whether or not they plan to incorporate armed teachers into their campus.
Principal Richard Finlayson declined the opportunity to issue a statement, except for declaring that ACA is doing everything within their capacity to safeguard their students, which includes not releasing security details to the public.