STARKE, Fla. - Bradford County is the first in Northeast Florida to train civilian men and women to be armed protectors inside our schools.
It's the Guardian Program, which is part of Florida's new school safety law passed after the mass school shooting in Parkland last February. It allows certain individuals trained by law enforcement to be armed on campus to help keep students and teachers safe. To be a guardian, her or she:
- Must be staff
- Can't be teachers, unless they're JROTC, law enforcement or current service members
- Will carry guns concealed under their plain clothes
While these guardians are volunteers, they may receive a $500 stipend from the state.
The Bradford County School District and Sheriff Gordon Smith allowed News4Jax inside as deputies instructed and trained 13 unnamed men and women to be ready for anything. And with that training, the sheriff is sending a powerful message to potential school attackers.
"If you come with intent of creating any harm in Bradford County, in one of our schools, I want you to know right off the bat when you start, that the likelihood of you dying is real," Smith said.
Intense training for 'guardians'
Over the summer, the 13 school employees went through 144 hours of intensive training and instruction to become "guardians." While we can't tell you who these 13 men and women are, we can tell you they are school administrators and coaches who were selected by Sheriff Smith and school leaders.
"It's kind of undercover. We are going to start out with the pretense that most people are not gonna know who they are," said Smith.
"These people weren’t chosen because they were Rambos or looking for an excuse to carry a weapon into the schools," added Lt. Kevin Mueller. "They legitimately just care about kids. They want to learn some more tactics and learn how to save children’s lives."
"I certainly think that it does give us an advantage when people don't know who the guardians are," said one trainee.
They started their training June 25 and didn't stop until July 27, being instructed on everything from gun laws to defensive tactics. They then took what they learned into simulators and real-life scenarios in the school to practice thwarting active shooters.
"On your ready! Active shooter!"
"That's gunfire! That's gunfire!"
"Put the gun down!"
"Every situation is different," explained Mueller.
The guardians trained and practiced for the worst possible situation inside their own classrooms, as armed employees who are willing to do anything to protect their students and staff.
"The kids need protection you know? We protect our courthouses, we protect other places that we deem are valuable -- and I don't think there's anything more valuable than our kids," said one guardian.
Added Smith: "We're setting the example for the rest of the country."
As part of the process, each guardian had to go through a psychological evaluation, background check, drug screen and interviews with law enforcement.
Then they had 80 hours of firearms training, or the same instruction a police officer would receive.
"Just a good athletic stance. Our shoulders, hips hands even with our arms. And this muscle is pointed towards a threat," explained Lt. Muller. "I don’t want to present my leg out here because now you’re preparing to ambush him. I keep my legs in, and take some small steps."
"I like how you all are moving. There’s an active shooter, but you’re not moving so fast that you cannot assess," Mueller told the guardians.
"Is it difficult to teach them (guardians) how to shoot at a real human being? Somebody that might be a minor?" News4Jax asked Mueller.
To which he replied: "They understand that these active shooters who are killing kids are threats that must be stopped. They want to stop these threats. That's why they're here."
"Are they taught to shoot to kill?"
"Yes," said Mueller.
Their training was rigorous, lasting from 10 to 14 hours on some days.
On the final day, these brave educators went to Camp Blanding to practice on the very same simulators the military and police use, mastering skills they all say they hope never have to use.
"God forbid if it ever does happen, it needs to be a fair fight," a guardian said.
Guardians confident they are ready to protect
Florida law says these appointed guardians have "no authority to act in any law enforcement capacity" unless they're stopping an "active assailant…on school premises."
However, there are parents who are opposed to this program, saying they don't think bringing more guns into the schools is the solution.
"If the bad guys did not have the guns, that would be great. We would not need them. But when we’ve seen these incidents that have happened, where innocent students and teachers have been killed or injured in the situations, then we need to level the playing field," a guardian told News4Jax.
"Every teacher would say it’s in the back of their mind, you know? What are we going to do? We’re sitting ducks if something occurs," said another.
"They (school shootings) happen so fast, and they don't stop until that threat is met by a good person,. And the faster we can do that, the more lives that are going to be saved," a third guardian added.
"You are confident in your training?" we asked.
"Oh, yes sir, yes sir," a guardian responded.
"I think Bradford County is just blessed to have so many people who are willing to spend so many hours in training. A lot of hard work, and a lot of dedication," said another guardian. "Very professional. They've taken it seriously."
In a letter to Smith, one of the guardians shared some heartfelt thoughts:
"Even though none of us wish there will ever be a time when we will actually have to use these skills, I feel 100% confident in gun handling, safety, shooting with accuracy, and the tactical techniques that we are taking with us. We ARE READY to protect our students and that reason solely lies in the phenomenal education given to us by the BCSO instructors."
The letter was signed, "A devoted Bradford County guardian." You can read the entire letter here.
How other local counties are protecting your kids
Baker County: Baker County has its schools covered with school resource officers.
Clay County: Clay County is hiring 29 total school safety officers and 17 total school resource officers.
Columbia County: Columbia County already has a school resource deputy at each of its 15 schools, and the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office is hiring an additional 19 deputies for backup.
Duval County: The Duval County School District has only hired 24 of the 105 necessary armed school assistant positions. Until then, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office will provide additional officers to fill the need.
Flagler County: Flagler County plans to have four additional school resource officers from the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, so there can be a sworn deputy at every school.
Nassau County: Nassau County plans to hire seven additional employees and is currently using off-duty deputies to have a security person at every school.
Putnam County: Putnam County is using a mix of school resource officers and armed guardians.
St. Johns County: St. Johns County has hired 28 armed security personnel from a private firm and has 15 deputies, so that all campuses are covered.
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