- - Thursday, September 12, 2019

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — “Get down on your knees!”

It’s not something a teacher ordinarily would shout during a summer training program, but this is no ordinary program.

This teacher was participating in active shooter response training under Florida’s revamped Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program at Southport Elementary School near Panama City.

She and other teachers were taught to tread cautiously down a hallway and peer into classrooms, which were empty save for role players — one of whom was posing as an active shooter.

Their job: Make threat assessments of each classroom while looking for the “shooter.”

She found him within seconds. Per her training, she stayed in the hall, pointed her Glock handgun at the “assailant” and ordered him to his knees. He complied and the whistle blew, ending the 30-second exercise.

The teacher later would face more challenging scenarios, with loud .38-caliber fake ammunition firing. She would fire back with fake ammunition of her own.

Her first run was met with applause from seasoned trainers from the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’ve definitely learned a lot.”

The original guardian program, created in March 2018 under the state’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, allowed administrators and other staff, including coaches and teachers, with military or law enforcement experience to volunteer as armed, concealed carry guardians.

Legislation signed in May by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, expanded the program to include all eligible teachers.

More school districts have since lined up. The Florida Department of Education’s safe schools office, which also was created under the public safety act, reported in August that 44 of the state’s 67 school districts had authorized the program, a 42% increase from 31 districts in April.

Across the state, 1,062 guardians and 3,156 law enforcement officers have been assigned to 3,717 schools. Of the $67 million appropriated for the program, $15.8 million has been approved for 36 sheriff’s offices, which are required to provide four weeks of training.

Program acceptance is left to each school board. Each teacher who participates receives a one-time $500 stipend.

“They’re not doing it for the money,” said Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford. “They’re not doing it for the fame and glory because they can’t tell anyone that they’re a guardian. They’re doing it because their heart is in protecting kids, and that has been what’s most striking to me is the type of person that’s volunteering to do this. We’re getting top-notch people whose motivation is to be a part of protecting their schools.”

No stranger to active shooters, Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt views the program as a necessary precaution. During a school board meeting in December 2010, an assailant was killed by an armed school district security guard moments after he began shooting at Mr. Husfelt and other school board members. No one else was injured.

“I don’t think anyone really likes the idea of arming teachers, but circumstances have really forced our hand,” Mr. Husfelt said. “If someone tried to come onto one of our campuses to harm students or employees, I would want to know that we did every single thing we could to protect our children and staff, and so arming highly trained, thoroughly vetted employees seems like a prudent measure to employ.”

Making the grade

Sheriff Ford wouldn’t reveal how many guardians are in Bay District schools, but he said he is impressed with the turnout. The school district and sheriff’s office work together to decide who would make a good fit. Candidates are subjected to background checks, drug screening, law enforcement interviews and psychological evaluations.

Eighty of the 144 hours of guardian training focuses on firearms instruction, in which candidates must score at least 85% proficiency. Deputy recruits are required to score 80%.

Each guardian is issued a subcompact Glock 43 9 mm with a 3.41-inch-long barrel, which can make hitting targets more difficult than can a typical service pistol. But hit targets they must, over and over, at the sheriff’s range from 3 to 25 yards.

“We have some that don’t pass, which is how the system is designed,” Sheriff Ford said. “If you can’t meet that standard, then unfortunately you don’t move forward.”

That was the case for the teacher above in the active shooter exercise.

“I grew up around guns, and I actually tried out for the program last year, but I wasn’t completely ready,” she said. “When you get to the qualifications, there’s timing. There’s different movement that I just wasn’t prepared for. So I did a lot of training on my own over the last year, knew I was ready, came out here, proved myself and passed qualifications.”

Guardians meet regularly with school resource officers and undergo weapons inspections. They must requalify for the program on an annual basis.

Although the guardian program has received some criticism, it has been accepted by most.

“There’s not as much pushback as I thought,” Sheriff Ford said. “We’re blessed, and people understand and appreciate a person’s right to carry a firearm and defend themselves. It’s not been as controversial here as it’s been in other areas.”

A male teacher participating in guardian training said parents have been supportive of the program.

“To be honest and given where we’re located, I think a lot of parents are in favor of it because they want their children protected,” he said. “If they know that a responsible adult or staff has it, it’s all for the better.”

Mr. Husfelt, the schools superintendent, said educating others about the program helps overcome reservations.

“We’ve had lots of conversations with the stakeholders about this, and we continue to do that,” he said. “Certainly there were concerns initially, but really, once people understand the level of training involved and the fact that many of our guardians are former military and law enforcement, their comfort level seems to improve.”

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