TAMPA, FL. They are part of Florida’s new wave of armed campus guards, but how part of a recent investigation examining the impact of school custodians on protecting students from gun violenceInvestigative reporter Cathy LaGrone found that the state also protects caregivers who do wrong.
“The question is, what are they hiding? Why don’t they want the public to know this information,” asked Michael Barfield, director of public outreach for the Florida Center for Government Accountability. The nonprofit watchdog group advocates for government transparency.
“It doesn’t seem right that citizens can’t find out if these standards are working to protect children in our schools,” Barfield said.
Florida’s school guardian program was born out of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
The controversial program gives districts the option to hire armed security guards instead of law enforcement on school campuses. In 2019, lawmakers expanded the program to allow school personnel, including teachers, to carry guns on campus as school custodians. Since the program’s inception, state law has protected the identities of school custodians and other Safe Schools employees from public disclosure.
But while the state requires districts to tell them whenever an officer or custodian is disciplined or fires a gun outside of training, the basic details of those incidents are also kept secret. According to the Florida Department of Education (FDOE), about 100 such reports have been filed with the department since 2020.
Despite numerous requests for details of the incident, the FDOE refused to release the records to us, saying in an email that the records are “confidential” and “exempt” from public disclosure. An FDOE spokesman said the records are “an integral part of the plan to protect the physical school building.”
“The exception for safety plans does not apply to discipline of school safety officers or staff,” argued Barfield of the Center for Government Accountability. “In my experience, I’ve seen agencies claim an exception to security plans when they can’t figure out a reason why another exception actually applies.”
Most school districts we contacted separately also declined to release details about the problem guardians they were required to report to the state. Several districts even sent us emails they received from the state advising them not to release the reports to us.
Of the few school districts that gave us details on the custodians they disciplined, the records showed that some school custodians faced disciplinary action for serious problems.
In Hillsborough County, a custodian was fired after he was accused of sexually assaulting a student. Several others lost their district jobs after leaving campus during the shift. In Lake and Citrus counties, school custodians have accidentally fired guns or left them unattended.
However, most districts refused to give us any information about the problems they were required to report to the state.
“If it was my decision, I would release it because I see no reason why this information can’t be released,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri also chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission on Public Safety, which first urged the state to adopt a school guardian program.
“Transparency, in my opinion, is a good thing. This is how I act,” he said.
“Parents need to know the good, the bad and the ugly,” explained Ken Trump, an Ohio-based school safety expert and consultant.
“They need to know what works well and the success stories. They also need to know if you have some serious issues with individuals with questionable pasts and individuals with questionable actions and behavior,” Trump said.
But instead, the Sunshine State is keeping parents in the dark.
“We’re going backwards, not forwards in terms of transparency, and I don’t understand that,” Barfield said.