TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A year ago, Florida lawmakers decided that one way they could try to protect students from shooters was to arm school personnel, and they doled out millions of dollars to start the school “guardian” program.
So far, the state dollars used for that push have been dominated by expenses for firearm supplies and staff.
The 25 sheriff’s offices participating in the school guardian program have spent nearly $2 million to buy firearm supplies such as ammunition, weapons and gun holsters and at least $3 million to pay for salaries and benefits of employees involved in the training process, according to records obtained by The News Service of Florida.
Other purchases that have driven program costs in some counties have to do with screening candidates who participate in the program and expenses for uniforms. While costs vary from county to county, the state has paid at least $376,000 for drug screening, polygraph tests and psychological exams and about $300,000 on uniforms for guardians.
Training equipment and firearm accessories, however, tend to dominate much of the sheriff’s offices’ costs. Some examples include a $125,000 virtual reality active-shooting simulator purchased in Brevard County, $52,000 for bags and gun safes used to transport weapons in Polk County and $107,775 in Broward County to provide protective vests to guardians.
Whether that money has been spent appropriately by law-enforcement agencies implementing the widely debated guardian program will be up for discussion during the legislative session that starts March 5, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley said.
“Certainly, compensation for those who train the guardians, as well as the cost of weapons and ammunition, were anticipated costs for the guardian program,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told the News Service.
Bradley said the rollout of the program has been promising and that the state appears to be moving in the right direction. Under the law passed in 2018, the guardian program was limited to school staff members whose primary duties are outside the classroom. This year, Republican leaders are building a case to allow arming classroom teachers as guardians.
Democrats, however, are concerned that too much money is going toward buying guns and ammunition rather than going to other school-safety measures, like cameras, fencing or hiring law-enforcement officers to work in schools.
“This is another egregious example of the undue influence the gun lobby was given during the creation of the guardian program,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, told the News Service. “Every dollar spent by districts on firearms and ammunition is another state dollar not being put toward school hardening, mental health services and the hiring of SROs (school resource officers).”
The guardian program, created after a gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle killed 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last Valentine’s Day, has remained highly controversial as it nears its one-year mark. Democrats are pushing back against expanding it to allow armed classroom teachers.
“Every teacher that I have spoken to has made it clear that they do not want a gun, because it is not their job,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “But, leave it to Tallahassee, we do what we want to do and say the hell with what they have to say. It’s bad, unnecessary and just wrong.”
From the 25 counties that have decided to arm school personnel, all but one have requested funding from the state --- a total of $9.3 million out of the $67 million that lawmakers set aside for the program this year.
Polk County has requested $1.5 million to implement the program, the most of any county. The county’s sheriff, Grady Judd, was a key player in helping shape the statewide program.
The rest of the state’s 42 counties have opted out of the program and are not able to tap into the unspent $57 million for other security measures.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he wants to roll this year’s unspent money for the program into the 2019-2020 budget, but those details will be ironed out during budget negotiations by the Legislature. But it has support from Republican leaders, including Senate President Bill Galvano, whose chamber is moving a sweeping school security proposal that will lead to lawmakers addressing funding questions.
The state Department of Education, which oversees the guardian program, allows counties to use state money for “relevant costs associated with the administration of the project.” That includes offices supplies, the employment of “appropriate staff,” meeting room rentals, consulting costs and training equipment.
In some cases, counties have redacted expense amounts, so the records obtained by the News Service do not show an exact total. But the records give details about many expenditures.
While large sums of state money have gone to firearm supplies and training equipment, such as targets, gun holsters and gun range rentals, seven of the 25 participating counties have invested a total of $23,300 in training that is designed to reduce racial bias in policing.
The Clay County Sheriff’s Office, for example, submitted a budget request to the Department of Education to cover $2,638 in travel costs associated with sending two deputies to a seminar on “human diversity.” Those two deputies were assigned to train school guardians.
Jones said racial-diversity training is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving community policing, including school staff who are trained to act in shooting situations.
“Putting money toward racial and diversity training is one thing, but putting action and recommendations in their policies after the trainings are what’s key,” Jones said.
News Service of Florida