The new school culture in Florida: Armed officers at every elementary school

By: - July 6, 2018 6:31 am

Activist group Moms Demand Action protest gun violence. Photo courtesy Moms Demand Action – FL Facebook page

Gay Valimont’s son attended kindergarten at a Panhandle elementary school last year, and he’ll be in first grade at the same school this coming school year.

But his school won’t be the same.  Sooner or later, a “safe-school” officer, armed with a gun, will be stationed at the Santa Rosa county school, said Valimont, a crusader for preventing gun violence.

Generations ago, families across the country likely didn’t experience a strong law enforcement presence in schools. But as the years went by, high school students became accustomed to armed security on campuses, and then middle school students.

Now there’s a new normal in Florida following February’s grim shootings at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County.

Under a new law stemming from the student and staff deaths, even the youngest of schoolchildren will be exposed to armed officers in elementary schools, as districts pump up school security across the state this school year.

Valimont, the volunteer Florida Chapter Leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, believes her 6-year-old will see an officer’s uniform and gun and think, “They are good people.”

But not everyone will react the same way.

Florida is a diverse state, geographically and politically, so there will be different views on what families expect in a school environment.

There is an overarching view: “I think we understand the need to keep our kids safe. Parents are really scared,” said Angie Gallo, legislation chair at the Florida PTA.  When it comes to safety officers in schools, “Being a police officer in your school should make you feel safe; someone is looking after you,” Gallo said.

In that regard, the PTA organization supports using school resource officers in schools –  meaning certified, explicitly trained law enforcement officers such as deputy sheriffs or police officers.

However, not all districts are responding the same way as administrators scramble to fulfill what has become a complex and confusing new requirement.

The law approved in March requires school boards and district superintendents to partner with law enforcement agencies to place at least one or more “safe-school officers” at each school facility in a district. That would encompass elementary, middle and high school campuses.

Those officers could be the traditional school resource officers often assigned to high schools and some middle schools. But the law allows other options, such as a school safety officer employed by a school district or a school “guardian,” meaning certain school personnel who would be armed to aid in incidents on campus. With some exceptions, those guardians could not be teachers who exclusively perform classroom duties.

That guardian program has been the most controversial as districts work on getting safety personnel into schools, and the program and has been opposed by groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, and the Moms Demand Action group in Florida.

“It is very sad that we’ve come to this point in our society, where many people feel it is necessary to place armed security on our school campuses,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters in Florida.

She added, “It makes no sense at all to hire anyone other than a School Resource Officer to carry a concealed weapon onto a school campus.”

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson, Jr. is president of the Florida Sheriffs Association that has been working closely with schools on getting safety officers into school buildings.

“Our first choice is to always have a deputy sheriff or police officer there, but it is not happening because there’s not even remotely enough money for that,” Adkinson said. “They (districts) don’t want to pay for those (traditional) law enforcement officers – that is the bottom line.” Districts are now choosing less expensive options, such as security guards, armed guards, or other types of security personnel.

“Across the state, there are different versions of these plans that are going in place. It is clearly not uniform. Quite frankly, it can’t be uniform, at this point…The term I would use is a blended approach,” Adkinson said.

This Department of Education provided the Florida Phoenix a list of school districts so far that plan to use the “guardian” program. They are: Bay, Bradford, Brevard, Broward, Clay, Duval, Hendry, Holmes, Lake, Marion, Okeechobee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Suwannee, Volusia and Manatee.

That would be fewer than a third of school districts participating. However, given the blended approach that Sheriff Adkinson referenced, it’s not clear who would be a guardian and what the program would look like. Parents are left with many questions as the new school year approaches.

The state Department of Education spokeswoman also listed another dozen districts that would not be participating in the guardian program in traditional schools, “but they will allow their charter schools to participate if they wish.” Those districts are: Alachua, Collier, Columbia, Dixie, Glades, Hernando, Madison, Okaloosa, Orange and Sarasota, Seminole and St. Lucie.

In Polk County, the school district has been hiring and training “school safety guardians” who will be armed and placed in elementary schools, said district spokeswoman Rachel Pleasant.

“This was mandated by the state Legislature that we had to do this. And we recognize that this is a new era,” Pleasant said. “I think that this was the very best option for our school district and our intent is to create a safer school environment.”

Gay Valimont, of Moms Demand Action, grew up in Georgia and didn’t recall any school safety officers in her schools. But now her own child will grow up with a law enforcement presence at school.

She believes all school districts will likely do something different as they go about placing armed safety officers in schools, and how it will all play out is uncertain.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like in the inside of a school anymore,” Valimont said.

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.