Guardians to replace officers in Nassau County elementary schools

Budget issues force change from armed officers to school guardians, sheriff says

File photo
File photo

NASSAU COUNTY, Fla. – Armed police officers will not be in elementary schools in Nassau County next year because of budget issues, Sheriff Bill Leeper said Tuesday.

Instead, the schools will be staffed with armed school guardians. The Guardian Program was signed into law in Florida after the deadly mass shooting at a Parkland high school a year ago.

Leeper said the guardians will wear plainclothes but have a handgun, body armor and a flashlight. However, they do not have arrest powers and are only allowed to use their weapons if there is an active shooter on campus.

“It all boils down to cost,” Leeper said of the change. “What the Legislature approved was not enough for the schools here in Nassau County to provide school resource officers, so they’re looking at school safety officers, as well as guardians.”

The Sheriff’s Office will continue to provide school resource officers at high schools and middle schools as contracted by the school board.

“If money wasn’t an issue, the obvious choice would be school resource officers in the schools. The next best would be the school safety officers,” Leeper said. “And then the last resort would be a school guardian.”

Leeper just handed out certificates to the county's first three school guardians, who will be staffing elementary schools next year. The new guardians went through a four-week training program.

Elementary school parents and loved ones had varied opinions on the switch from officers to guardians.

“I don’t agree with it at all. I’m a grandma. I think everybody in this day and age should be (concerned with safety), whether it’s high school, junior high or elementary. I have them in all three,” Linda Cockerel said.

Parent Beth Helmens said having uniformed officers makes a difference for students.

“I like having the officers in school. I like having them in their uniform. It gives the kids some type of peace of mind and the parents visually have a peace of mind as well,” Helmens said.

But parent Kelly Swearington said as long as someone is guarding the children's safety, that's all that matters.

“I don’t think I hate that, actually, honestly. I don’t think I hate that as long as there’s somebody here that is supposed to be looking out for the children, then, yeah, I think we have to have somebody,” Swearington said.

There is a need for more guardians and school safety officers to service the 16 schools in the district. If you’re interested in becoming a guardian, contact the Nassau County School District at 904-491-9900.

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