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A Florida school’s answer to campus shootings? Combat veterans with semiautomatic rifles and Glocks.

February 12, 2019 at 7:07 PM

A law enforcement officer watches a school building's front door. (iStock)

In the post-Parkland shooting era, Florida law now requires each school to have a “safe-school officer” to protect students from potential shooters. One school in Manatee County has implemented a particularly aggressive solution.

Manatee School for the Arts, located in Manatee County, Fla., has hired two combat veterans to serve as “guardians” for the school, each equipped with a Kel-Tec semiautomatic rifle, a Glock handgun and a protective plate carrier.

The school’s decision to hire and arm its safe-school officers has made national news as the anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School approaches. Billions of dollars are being spent on school safety around the country, and lawmakers are examining different policies to curb school shootings.

Manatee School for the Arts’s decision still struck some experts as unusual.

“I have to be honest, I have never conducted a [school] assessment where this level of deter and defend was necessary,” said Erroll Southers of the University of Southern California, a former California homeland security official who specializes in research on homegrown terrorism and school safety.

Southers has performed security assessments for schools in the past but noted that this was an atypical remedy. “I teach in Israel, I teach in France, places where terrorism is an issue. I’ve not seen this anywhere, not in an academic and an educational environment.”

The principal, Bill Jones, argued his school’s model was necessary.

One of the guardians started in the fall, while another was set to join him this month, Jones said. He maintained that students had adjusted to the new security presence — and that one female student had even thanked the first guardian for protecting them.

“If somebody walks in here and starts shooting, it is war. It is mayhem,” he said. He wanted guardians who would know what to do if they came under fire, and combat veterans would have this experience.

Jones said he consulted with the school board, faculty and parents before moving forward with the plan.

“We’re not gun nuts,” Jones said. While he said he welcomed criticism and debates about gun policy, he added that his foremost concern was the safety of his students. “The purpose is, when it comes down to it, if we have to respond to a threat that comes on campus, I want to win. I don’t want there to be any possibility that we don’t win because we’re talking about people’s lives. I can’t take chances."

Related: Database: How many students experienced gun violence at school since Columbine?

Before the Parkland shooting and the Florida law that followed, the school had a perimeter fence and faculty helped keep an eye out for trouble. In addition to the guardians, Jones said, the school would have 450 security cameras, improved mental-health services and training for faculty who might encounter students who were struggling or at risk.

A Washington Post analysis counted two school shootings in Florida in 2018, including Parkland, and a total of 17 school shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

Activists on both sides of the gun debate fight over whether guns should be permitted in schools. The National Rifle Association and President Trump have called for arming teachers, and on Tuesday, Florida’s legislature considered a bill that would allow teachers to carry guns in school if they go through training. The gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety has come out against laws that would allow guns in school, and many gun-control activists reject these measures.

If officers are to carry guns in schools, some believe they should be members of law enforcement.

“The guardian concept, the civilian in there, I get it, and I understand why they might go to that length, being in that part of the state, where they’ve had one of the most horrific shootings ever. It doesn’t surprise me,” said Mo Canady, executive director for the National Association of School Resource Officers. “But it’s not necessarily what we would recommend. We would rather see sworn law enforcement officers, well trained, tactically sound, in those situations.”

MSA’s guardians are different from school resource officers, or SROs, who are law enforcement personnel who protect schools and whom Canady’s organization prefers for protecting schools. In addition to providing physical protection, they also practice community policing and build relationships with students.

“At the same time, we’re not in the position to throw rocks at somebody who’s doing it a different way,” Canady said.

The Manatee County Sheriff’s office said that they had been involved in training the guardians. They received “several weeks of pretty much standard law enforcement training,” said spokesman Randy Warren, though it was “not nearly as involved in what is involved to train a law enforcement deputy.” The guardians also took a written exam and received weapons training, Warren said.

“This is not a sporting event, and I’m not looking for a fair fight,” said Jones, who hired the two guardians from an applicant pool of 600 for the purpose of stopping a school shooting, should it occur. “You hope against hope that it never happens, but every school that ever had a shooting said the same thing."

And what if the assailant is a student, or former student, as was the case in Parkland?

“Bottom line is,” Jones said, “if they present as a threat, if they’re confronted, if they won’t yield, or if they act aggressively . . . if they were to fire, I don’t think these guys would hesitate to take a shot.”

Read more:

‘Is this going to happen here?’: After Florida shooting, teens worry about their safety at school

How one Parkland student’s phone became his lifeline, and his voice


Kayla Epstein is the social media editor for National at The Washington Post. She specializes in blending traditional reporting and social media to tell stories and engage readers. She previously worked for the Guardian US, where she worked in support of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the National Security Agency stories.

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