These school dis­tricts tried to arm coaches; it’s harder than it sounds

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY LINDA ROBERT­SON lrobert­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com BY KATHER­INE CAM­PI­ONE, VIN­CENT MCDON­ALD AND CHRISTINA MO­RALES Tampa Bay Times

Fas­ten your seat­belts, Mi­ami, it’s go­ing to be a long and bumpy ride. Gird your­self. Learn how to med­i­tate in your car. Stock up on pod­casts. Or, bet­ter yet, leave town for four years.

The mother of all high­way con­struc­tion projects com­mences Mon­day with the ini­tial stage of the $800 mil­lion re­design of In­ter­state 395, which will en­com­pass sig­nif­i­cant stretches of I-95 and State Road 836.

Ex­pect a clus­ter­jam, with three high­ways that feed down­town Mi­ami, Mi­ami Beach and the Civic Cen­ter area torn up. A sig­na­ture bridge that re­sem­bles a high-tech taran­tula will be built over Bis­cayne Boule­vard. A dou­ble-decker span will vault over I-95 to the After the deadly shoot­ing at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High MacArthur Cause­way. Brace for lane clo­sures, street clo­sures and exit clo­sures.

While the Flor­ida Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, Mi­ami-Dade Ex­press­way Au­thor­ity and School in Fe­bru­ary, Bre­vard County Schools As­sis­tant Su­per­in­ten­dent Matt Reed faced a chal­lenge un­like any in his ca­reer.

His team had to find, hire and train more than two-dozen new their con­trac­tors will try to min­i­mize dis­rup­tion, pain is guar­an­teed in per­pet­u­ally clogged South Flor­ida, where or­ange and white em­ploy­ees to carry firearms on school cam­puses and pro­tect stu­dents in the event of a school shooter. They had less than six months. The dis­trict missed the dead­line. “Even though school started in Au­gust, it re­ally was an­other month and a half after school started that we were ready,” Reed said.

Bre­vard County is among the Flor­ida schools sys­tems that is hav­ing dif­fi­culty com­ply­ing with a new state law that al­lows cer­tain em­ploy­ees to be armed. The Coach Aaron Feis School Guardian Pro­gram was cre­ated last year as part of the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas Pub­lic Safety Act,

Bre­vard isn’t the only school sys­tem to have trou­ble com­ply­ing with a new state law that al­lows cer­tain em­ploy­ees to be armed, ac­cord­ing to an ex­am­i­na­tion of how the pro­gram is be­ing im­ple­mented across the state by the Tampa Bay Times and Univer­sity of Flor­ida stu­dent jour­nal­ists.

Some small dis­tricts strug­gled to re­cruit enough so-called school guardians to keep their schools safe. Levy County launched a pro­gram, only to have no­body ap­ply for weeks.

Oth­ers had trou­ble with the guardians they hired. In Du­val County, a school safety as­sis­tant was ar­rested for pawn­ing a ser­vice weapon is­sued to him by the school dis­trict. In Hills­bor­ough, a school se­cu­rity deputy re­signed after ex­pos­ing stu­dents to pep­per spray.

The prob­lems have piled up, largely un­no­ticed, even as the con­cept of vastly ex­pand­ing the con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram has gath­ered mo­men­tum.

Last month, the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School Pub­lic Safety Com­mis­sion rec­om­mended the Leg­is­la­ture al­low teach­ers to par­tic­i­pate, say­ing the cur­rent law is too re­stric­tive to keep kids safe.

The Coach Aaron Feis School Guardian Pro­gram cur­rently al­lows cer­tain school-dis­trict em­ploy­ees who are not class­room teach­ers to carry con­cealed weapons on cam­pus.

School guardians can­not make ar­rests. But they are ex­pected to pro­tect stu­dents in the case of an ac­tive shooter.

The pro­gram was cre­ated last year as part of the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas Pub­lic Safety Act, which aimed to in­crease school se­cu­rity in the wake of the shoot­ing in Park­land. Flor­ida school boards were re­quired to ei­ther put a sworn law en­force­ment of­fi­cer or a guardian on ev­ery cam­pus.

The leg­is­la­ture gave them un­til the start of the school year to com­ply.

The idea of putting more guns on el­e­men­tary and sec­ondary school cam­puses has trans­fixed the state and the na­tion. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted his sup­port for arm­ing teach­ers last year. In Broward County, where the shoot­ing took place, the con­cept sparked protests. School board mem­bers first voted against arm­ing school per­son­nel, then con­ceded they couldn’t af­ford to com­ply with the law any other way.

Jour­nal­ists at the Univer­sity of Flor­ida par­tic­i­pat­ing in a data re­port­ing class un­der the di­rec­tion of Times ed­i­tors re­viewed news clips from around the state and reached out to many of the school dis­tricts that opted to use guardians in their tra­di­tional schools. More than a third of the 24 dis­tricts had prob­lems in the pro­gram’s first few months.

Pinel­las and Pasco did not have ob­vi­ous is­sues. Her­nando did not par­tic­i­pate.

In Bre­vard, push­back from the com­mu­nity held up the process, Reed said.

The sher­iff didn’t want to sur­vey the com­mu­nity and hold town hall meet­ings on the sub­ject “in part be­cause that would have meant that the se­cu­rity spe­cial­ists or the guardians, what­ever we choose, would not have been trained by the first day of school,” he said.

The Okee­chobee School Board de­cided to par­tic­i­pate in June. But the Okee­chobee Sher­iff’s Of­fice won’t be­gin train­ing guardians un­til Jan­uary 2019, Sgt. Michael Hazel­lief said.

Hazel­lief said train­ing six to 10 vol­un­teers would be chal­leng­ing be­cause of the high stan­dards set in the law.

“We have that many peo­ple who are in­ter­ested,” he said. “Out of that, I doubt we’ll have that high of a suc­cess rate.”

The Lafayette County school dis­trict also be­gan the year with­out any guardians, Sher­iff Brian Lamb said. By Jan­uary, a few vol­un­teers were near­ing the end of the train­ing process, but none were ac­tive in schools.

“It’s gonna be hard for us to get it all com­pleted,” Lamb said.

Levy County had no ap­pli­cants at the start of Oc­to­ber, As­sis­tant Su­per­in­ten­dent John Lott said. Asked in Jan­uary if any­one had ap­plied, Lott would not give an an­swer, cit­ing se­cu­rity risks.

“You don’t want the bad guys to know whether you’ve got 100 (guardians) or one,” Lott said.

Du­val County faced a dif­fer­ent kind of chal­lenge: Sev­eral par­ents sued the school dis­trict on Novem­ber, claim­ing that it is il­le­gal for school safety as­sis­tants to carry weapons on school grounds.

“The (school) board adopted a pro­gram to hire in­ad­e­quately trained in­di­vid­u­als who are not law en­force­ment of­fi­cers to carry guns while polic­ing pub­lic schools,” the par­ents wrote.

Three non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions — the League of Women Vot­ers, the Gif­fords Law Cen­ter to Pre­vent Gun Vi­o­lence and the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter — joined the law­suit, which calls for the re­moval of firearms from the safety as­sis­tants’ pos­ses­sion.

Du­val County Schools spokesman Tracy Pierce de­clined to com­ment on the lit­i­ga­tion.

The school safety as­sis­tants were re­quired to un­dergo 200 hours of train­ing, in­clud­ing firearms cour­ses, from the Jack­sonville Sher­iff’s Of­fice, ac­cord­ing to the Du­val County Pub­lic Schools web­site.

In Man­a­tee County, guardian John Cinque was fired from his du­ties at Kin­nan El­e­men­tary School in Sara­sota after the Braden­ton Her­ald un­earthed a se­ries of con­tro­ver­sial post on his Face­book page.

One dis­played a SWAT hel­met with a bul­let hole, ac­cord­ing to a dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tory re­port. The cap­tion — “Cit­i­zens may re­sist un­law­ful ar­rest to the point of tak­ing an ar­rest­ing of­fi­cer’s life if nec­es­sary” — was at­trib­uted to an 1893 court case in the In­di­ana Supreme Court. The quo­ta­tion, how­ever, does not ap­pear in the rul­ing.

Cinque told school dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tors that he “stood by his be­liefs,” but said he was “not a rightwing ex­trem­ist.” He could not be reached for com­ment for this re­port.

Man­a­tee County school dis­trict at­tor­ney Mitchell Teit­el­baum de­clined to dis­cuss Cinque’s case in fur­ther de­tail, but said guardians were trained and ad­vised on so­cial me­dia in ad­vance.

Dis­trict of­fi­cials were tak­ing a closer look at the guardians’ so­cial me­dia ac­counts, he added.

In Hills­bor­ough County, a school se­cu­rity deputy re­signed after ex­pos­ing sev­eral Lopez El­e­men­tary School stu­dents to pep­per spray, ac­cord­ing to the county sher­iff’s of­fice.

One stu­dent was taken to the school nurse and had to be treated with wa­ter and ice, the re­port said.

The dis­trict is us­ing con­tracted deputies un­til it can hire and train more peo­ple to add to its armed se­cu­rity team. One of those deputies, Pa­tri­cia Parker, sprayed the chem­i­cal agent into a nap­kin to show it to four stu­dents who were cu­ri­ous about the gear on her belt, the sher­iff’s of­fice said. Three stu­dents sat nearby and came into con­tact with the spray.

Hills­bor­ough County Pub­lic Schools Se­cu­rity Ser­vices Chief John New­man said the chem­i­cal spray “doesn’t know a good guy or a bad guy.”

“It comes out in a big splat, and well, that splat will have col­lat­eral con­tam­i­na­tion in that class­room,” he said.

Parker, 56, be­gan work­ing with the sher­iff’s of­fice in May 1990 and re­tired from ser­vice in 2015. She was re­hired in July as a school se­cu­rity deputy and re­signed after the in­ci­dent. She could not be reached for com­ment.

That deputy re­tired that day know­ing she had not per­formed to the stan­dard we ex­pect,” Hills­bor­ough County sher­iff’s spokesman Daniel Al­varez said. “That’s not a toy and she knew that.”

A new deputy was put in the school when Parker re­signed, New­man said.

Across the state, Du­val County school safety as­sis­tant James Richard John­son was ar­rested for pawn­ing a ser­vice weapon is­sued to him by the school dis­trict two sep­a­rate times, records show.

He used the Glock hand­gun for col­lat­eral to bor­row $300 in Au­gust, records show.

Then, on Oct. 5, he pawned the weapon again, this time for $230.

John­son could not be reached for com­ment. He re­signed in Oc­to­ber.

Danielle Thomas, the leg­is­la­tion chair­woman for the Flor­ida PTA, said her or­ga­ni­za­tion had wor­ried prob­lems like this might arise if the state ap­proved a school guardian pro­gram. The PTA wanted only sworn law en­force­ment of­fi­cers on cam­puses, she said.

Thomas said she hopes to see the state law­mak­ers con­sider changes to the guardian pro­gram when the leg­isla­tive ses­sion be­gins in March.

“We don’t want to nec­es­sar­ily be le­nient on time­lines,” she said. “But un­der­stand that not ev­ery­thing can be done in re­ally short time frames if we want to do this and do this well.”

Kather­ine Cam­pi­one, Vin­cent McDon­ald and Christina Mo­rales are stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Flor­ida. This re­port was edited by Times deputy in­ves­ti­ga­tions ed­i­tor Kath­leen McGrory. Con­tact her at km­c­[email protected]­pabay .com.

Mi­ami Her­ald file FDOT

A ren­der­ing of the dou­ble-decked por­tion of S.R. 836 over the Mi­ami River. The win­ning de­sign for a sig­na­ture bridge on I-395 cre­ated by Archer Western fea­tures a struc­ture sup­ported by foun­tain-like arches.

LUIS SAN­TANA Tampa Bay Times

For­mer law en­force­ment of­fi­cer Scott Bowlin pre­pares to en­ter a class­room dur­ing ac­tive shooter drills put on by the Pasco County Sher­iff as train­ing for the Guardian pro­gram.

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