TAMPA, FL. It’s a controversial school safety measure in the wake of the tragedy. But five years after armed school custodians became part of Florida school security, we wanted to know, is it working?
“Absolutely,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who appointed a guardian in his county several years before the Parkland shooting.
His program, he said, became the basis for the state’s guardianship program.
“Yes,” Hillsborough County School Police Chief John Newman said without hesitation.
“Well, how many mass casualties or active shooters have we had at school since Stoneman Douglas? None,” replied Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
All three Florida law enforcement leaders are big fans Coach Aaron Feis’ School Guardian Program. The program was named after one of the adults killed in the 2018 Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
This gives school districts the option to hire less expensive armed security guards instead of law enforcement officers or school resource officers for campuses. A year after approval, the program expanded to include teachers who could be armed while on campus.
The program was created as a more affordable version of a law passed in response to the Parkland shooting that required districts to have at least one one-armed person on every school campus to protect students and staff in the event of an active shooter.
“It’s working out well. We need more of them,” said Sheriff Gualtieri, who is also in charge Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission on Public Safety. After Parkland, a commission was created to analyze the failures that led to the shooting. The group also makes recommendations to improve school safety. For Gualtieri, school guardians have always been a no-brainer.
“If we don’t have an armed person with a gun on these campuses, then we’re being irresponsible and dishonest, and we’re leaving the campus vulnerable. Why would we do that,” he asked investigative journalist Cathy LaGrone during a recent interview.
Today, school guardians are used in 46 Florida school districts, which is more than half of the state’s districts. Florida Secretary of Education Manny Diaz recently said he wants to expand the program by increasing the number of guardians on campuses and expanding the guardian program to the state’s private schools.
Hillsborough County has 385 school custodians working in elementary and charter schools. Law enforcement officers or school resource officers deal with middle and high schools.
“The genius of the guardian program is that whether you’re in a small county or a very large county like Hillsborough County, you can take that definition and apply it to your resources and finances and implement something that works for your district,” Chief Newman explained.
But while Chief Newman, Sheriff Gualtieri and Sheriff Judd are quick to tout the program as a success in Florida, we found that measuring the impact of school custodians on campus safety is based on information that doesn’t exist or is largely overlooked. the public eye.
When asked how he measures the success of school trustees on campus,
Chief Newman responded, “You really can’t miss a tough event.”
Polk Sheriff Judd said, “First of all, did we have an active attacker? Number two is comfort level with parents, absolutely.”
“You’re trying to measure the intangible, and that’s sometimes hard to do. But if you look at it over a period of over five years, we haven’t had any major events, so what we’re doing is working,” explained Sheriff Gualtieri, who added that the school guardian program is just one of components of a more comprehensive state program approach to school safety and security adopted as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act of 2018.
But Ohio school safety expert Ken Trump has cautions about how Florida is measuring the success of its program.
“We can’t define school safety in a negative way, saying a school is safe because we haven’t had a shooting,” he explained.
That’s because, Trump said, measuring the impact of school custodians or any safe school staff on campus comes down to data, and that’s limited.
“We’re just seeing mixed research on school resource officers, trained permit officers. School guardian programs are evaluated very little, if at all,” Trump said.
In Florida, what’s available is mostly kept secret.
Following the Parkland shooting and the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) required school districts to report to the state Office of Safe Schools within 72 hours when a safe school staff member, including school custodians, engages in misconduct that results in discipline or shoots a gun outside of practice.
About 100 reports have been filed with the state since 2020, according to FDOE. But any details of these developments are kept secret by the FDOE. Despite numerous requests, the government agency has refused to give us even the basic details of any incidents.
According to an emailed response from an FDOE spokesperson, any records related to Safe Schools staff are considered part of “safety plans,” which are confidential and not subject to public disclosure, according to the FDOE.
Sheriff Gualtieri does not believe these records should be kept from the public.
“I see no reason why this information cannot or should not be disclosed,” he told us.
When we asked the school districts for details, most school districts also refused to release any records to us about Safe School Officer issues. Some counties told us the FDOE advised them not to release any details because the information is not confidential.
But some did.
From those who responded and sent us copies of disciplinary records, information indicates that the state’s school guardian program has not developed without some challenges.
Hillsborough County has signed up about half a dozen guardians since the county began using guardians in 2019. According to records provided to us by Chief Newman, one school custodian was fired after being accused of sexually assaulting a student, and two other custodians were fired for leaving campus during their shifts.
Citrus and Lake County school districts reported a custodian who accidentally fired a gun or left it unattended.
Still statewide, school custodian issues are a small fraction of the more than 4,000 Safe Schools officers and custodians who patrol Florida’s schools
But Trump said those numbers aren’t enough to consider Florida’s program a success.
“It cannot be said that school guardian programs do not work. We can’t say they work perfectly or generally well because we don’t have complete data,” he said.
“So the only measure of success for this program is the lack of an event,” reporter Cathy LaGrone asked Sheriff Gualtieri.
“That’s how you describe it,” the sheriff replied. “What other information do you need? What other information do you need? To some extent, you’re looking for information that can’t be there,” he said.