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Duval County School Board approves plan to hire armed school safety assistants

Program to put armed employee at county's 107 elementary, alternative schools

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Duval County School Board on Tuesday night voted 6-1 to approve a plan staffing every elementary school with an armed school safety assistant by the start of the 2018-2019 school year.

The school safety assistant program will put an armed employee at each of Duval County's 107 elementary and alternative schools so that the district is in compliance with the new state law passed after the Parkland school shooting. 

Duval County middle and high schools are already patrolled by school safety officers. 

With the plan approved, Duval County Public Schools will now have to hire and train the positions before Aug. 13.

VIEW: May board meeting presentation

School safety assistants won't be sworn officers, but the Duval County school district feels confident in the amount of training they will undergo. Here's a breakdown of the minimum training:

  • 80 hours of firearms training 
  • 16 hours of instruction in precision pistol 
  • 8 hours of discretionary shooting instruction using approved simulator exercises
  • 8 hours of instruction in defensive tactics
  • 8 hours of instruction in active shooter or assailant scenarios
  • 12 hours of instruction in legal issues

Some Jacksonville parents like the idea.

"If they had adequate training, that's something I would support," parent Carl Kesgen said.

While other parents had concerns.

"Somebody without military of police training having a gun and not using it appropriately worries me," parent Mary Anderson said.

The average salary of a school safety assistant, a 10-month position, will be $12.50 an hour, or $20,600 annually, with benefits. For comparison, the average salary of an armed security officer can be anywhere between $11 and $15 an hour, with many security companies also providing benefits. 

School Board Chair Paula Wright said the district is targeting retired law enforcement and military for the positions, but those backgrounds are not required.

"It will be a mixed group of people -- some retirees, some military, some citizens who need a job," Wright told News4Jax on Wednesday. "We're happy to be able to include 107 people into our economic force here in Jacksonville."

Candidates must also:

  • Complete ongoing yearly weapon training
  • Pass a psychological evaluation.
  • Complete at least 12 hours of diversity training
  • Pass a drug test and ongoing random screenings
  • Have a valid driver’s license and a high school diploma

All equipment -- including the guns, uniforms and radios -- will be bought and provided by the district.

Before voting Tuesday evening, training and implementation was one issue debated by school board members. The other was cost.

That was a main point of contention for board members before they voted to approve the plan, which is estimated to cost about $4.18 million.

School board members debated the minimum qualifications of the new position, which fulfills the state of Florida's new law incorporating the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. 

"I wish that the Legislature had planned this overtime and said, 'This year, increase by so many resource officers and then next year,' and fund it as such," Superintendent Dr. Patricia Willis said. "They didn't do that."

To fund the plan, the district will use the $3.6 million in additional Safe School funding it received from the state. The district will also propose in its budget additional money to fully fund the plan.

Most board members criticized the state Legislature for mandating the change, but only funding a portion of the money needed for the program. 

"Unfortunately, because it's underfunded, it put school boards in a position where we have to do the option that we least like," School Board Member Becki Couch said. "We get set up by the Legislature to have to do something like this."

School Board Member Ashley Smith Juarez was the only "no" vote.

"I also implore the board to be cognizant of the risk involved in having an individual with four weeks of training on a campus," she said. 

The new school safety assistants will be part of the district’s School Police Department, which consists currently of 82 sworn law enforcement officers.

The school district is now hiring for the positions and is asking anyone interested in applying to call 904-390-2000.

About the Authors:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.