After discussions Monday with Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison, the Gulf County School Board will not make an immediate move to arm staff but reserved the right at a later date.
In effect the board took no formal action to be included or excluded from what is known statewide as the “Guardian” program while moving ahead on several othe fronts pertaining to school safety.
The issue, Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton said, was “functionality.”
But, at its core, Sheriff Mike Harrison would be the one to push the Guardian program, with the School Board participating.
The “Guardian” law provides the opportunity for districts to tap into funding to arm selected school staff: maintenance, coaches, administrators and leaders of ROTC programs.
The Guardian program is completely voluntary and it is for the county sheriff to establish, with the school board participating, according to state statute shared by Harrison during Monday’s executive session.
A school guardian must have a concealed weapon permit and complete 132 hours of training, including firearms and precision pistol training, eight hours of discretionary shooting, eight hours of active shooter scenarios, eight hours of defensive tactics and 12 hours of legal issues and diversity training.
The guardian must pass a psychological evaluation and intial as well as random drug tests.
Teachers and others whwo perform exclusively classroom duties are ineligible to volunteer for the program.
The provision does not apply to JROTC teachers, a current military member or current or former law enforcement officer.
A one-time $500 stipend is given to each guardian to purchase a Sheriff-approved firearm and holster.
After training, the guardian would become a special deputy operating under the auspices of the sheriff.
The sole authority a guardian has is on school grounds and only to engage an active shooter.
In a small county such as Gulf, there are two immediate complicating factors to establishing a guardian program.
One, the Sheriff’s Office does not currently have a full-time training officer.
Further, for a small department already strapped for resources, any school guardians would require liability insurance and worker’s comp coverage through the SO.
“I do not know of a similarly-sized county that is going to the Guardian program,” Harrison said. “The life of a child does not have a price tag, but there are costs and aspects of this law that have yet to be worked through.
“There is merit to the program, don’t get me wrong. But there are a lot of other things that need to be focused on right now.”
On the district side of the equation, finding guardian volunteers was a challenge.
Coaches were not interested due to summer workouts, the JROTC commander has a full plate and the district will be working maintenance staff “hard” during the summer in the schools to bolster safety and security.
“Could I find one or two people?,” Norton said. “I have one or two who could do it, but I don’t know how to make the program work.
“For such a small district, and small sheriff’s office, the Guardian program will be hard to implement.”
The district had until July 1 to notify the state if it was entering the Guardian program, accessing one of several pots of money established under school safety legislation passed earlier this year.
“We’ve taken no action … and in the future, if we feel we need to (go that direction), we can ask the sheriff if he’s in agreement and move ahead,” Norton said.
“We can do that anytime we wish and the sheriff agrees. We really don’t have the personnel and (the sheriff) doesn’t have the training officer right now.”
The priority, for both district and SO, is beefing up the law enforcement presence on school campuses.
“First and foremost, our objective is to get more (School Resource Officers) in the schools,” Harrison said. “100 percent coverage, first bell to last, on each campus to keep our kids safe.
“With the state (school safety) funding and some out-of-pocket from my budget and the district’s budget we can do that without increasing local ad valorem taxes.”
The district is also seeking to fill two new mental health counselor positions to be funded by school safety dollars.
In addition, Norton said, funding from another pot of state funding will be used to “harden” schools to make them more secure; the exact details, Norton added, are those which were discussed behind closed doors on Monday.
“Every campus we will have a law enforcement presence like never before and I am focused on perfecting that,” Norton said. “Through (safe school legislation) we are doing everything we can in a small district to make our kids safer.”