Arming Educators: a closer look at the “school guardian program”

Arming Educators: a closer look at the "school guardian program."

LAKELAND, FL (WWSB) – Dr. Chris Owen is the Executive Vice President of Southeastern University, a private college in Lakeland.

However, if an active shooter ever comes onto campus, he’s also the first line of defense.

"It’s not what we want to be known for," says Owens. "It’s just another part of my job of volunteering to help keep them safe."

Dr. Chris Owen, executive vice president of Southeastern University in Lakeland.

Owens is what the Polk County Sheriff’s Office refers to as a "sentinel," a deputized school employee who has been armed after months of training with the local sheriff’s office to respond to an active shooter situation if one should ever arise.

As local school districts discuss how to meet new state requirements of a law enforcement officer in every school, one highly-debated option has been the "school guardian program."

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd created the sentinel program in December of 2016 because he says the average law enforcement response time is over five minutes, while active shooter situations last 2-5 minutes on average."

"At many of these school shootings, teachers, coaches, administrators charged a rabid murderer with a gun when they had no gun at all to save children," says Sheriff Judd. "What we’re saying is let’s just give those same administrators a fighting chance."

Dr. Chris Owen training at the PCSO firing range.

For over six months, eight SEU faculty volunteers underwent background checks, psychological exams, and stricter firearm training than a state-certified police officer.

Seven of those sentinels remain undercover on campus, even to the students.

"We’re not just randomly handing out guns," says Dr. Owen. "We’re training people who are willing and capable to become law enforcement officers in a very narrow role, but a very vital role."

When Governor Rick Scott aimed to overhaul school security after the fatal shooting that killed 17 people at a Parkland, Fla. high school, Sheriff Judd took his sentinel blueprint to Tallahassee to become the foundation of the school guardian program outlined in the "Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act."

"Basically the program you see, with a few minor tweaks, is the Sheriff Office sentinel program," says Judd.

The similarities are obvious: 80 hours of firearm training based on the criminal justice standards and training commission (CJSTC) model, which includes discretionary shooting in a simulator, legal-training in a classroom, and active shooter scenario exercises.

The major differences between the programs are an extra 12 hours of "diversity training" for school guardians, and a prohibition on classroom teachers from participating in the guardian program.

Manatee county school board member Charlie Kennedy, a former teacher, prefers school resource officers in schools protecting students.

He says SROs seem to make parents more comfortable, and have more training and experience to deal with a threat.

"I don’t know of any employees on campus who are already don’t have enough to do," says Kennedy.

Kennedy and fellow school board members are still trying to figure out how to pay for the state-mandated security at every K-12 school.

The Sarasota County school district is working towards creating their own school police force, which they say could save them $1.5 million in future budgets, though it will still lead to some cuts.

The school guardian program could save districts even more, with only the costs of training and a $500 stipend for volunteer guardians. Still, Kennedy says he’d rather pay more for a badge.

"It is a little bit more expensive, but to me, like a lot of cases, you get what you pay for," says Kennedy.

Mike Magowan has been a firearms instructor on the Suncoast for over 30 years, and one of few private instructors licensed to train law enforcement officers. He’s also trained private security guards, and even some teachers interested in becoming more proficient with a handgun.

We went to a private range so one of his students, a 67-year-old female school teacher in our area, could demonstrate some of the training exercises required for CJSTC certification, the same standards for potential school guardians.

"Anyone who wants to learn can become safe with a gun," says Magowan.

On the range with Mike Magowan and his 67-year-old student, a longtime K-12 teacher in our area.

This student, who asked to remain anonymous, has been taking Magowan’s classes for 10 years, and it shows. Her 2-3 shot bursts are generally no more than a few inches apart as she moves between 3-15 yards away from her target. It makes no difference whether she starts from a shooting position, gun in holster, or even after reloading a magazine.

On the range with Mike Magowan and his 67-year-old student, a longtime K-12 teacher in our area.

Is it proficient enough to protect students? Magowan, who has a child in school, believes it is.

"You’re trying to have me choose between two people," says Magowan, referring to an SRO or school guardian. "I just want a trained professional."

Sheriff Judd says that’s exactly what parents and school leaders will get from the training outlined in this program, whether it’s a school employee or law enforcement agent.

"I have no doubt these guardians will save lives if called upon," says Judd.

Still, between Sheriff Judd, Dr. Owen, and even Magowan, the hope is that they’ll never have to find out for sure.

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