In May 2019 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7030, permitting the arming of teachers and staff in Florida schools beginning October 2019. Under the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program”, in counties where the Sheriff, at his or her discretion, chooses to establish a Guardian Program. By law, teachers who exclusively perform classroom duties are not eligible. The exceptions are JROTC teachers, current members of armed services and former law enforcement officers. Administrators, support staff and other professionals who do not work exclusively in classrooms are eligible to become guardians.
Not unlike the rational utilized by other states who choose to implement a Guardian program, the Florida Senate Bill analysis states that, “...The bill improves school security measures by expanding school district options and eligibility for participation in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program”. In other words, the reasoning for arming selected employees is an asserted linkage between armed staff and faculty, and improved campus security. As a result, for decision makers in the education field who must take into consideration a variety of options as to the value and risks of a Guardian program, arming teachers and staff is a true dilemma. Below are seven considerations that can help campus administrators as they weigh the decision making process to implement a Guardian program.
1. Define clear goals and objectives
There is little in the Florida bill that clarifies the goals and objectives of arming teachers and staff. The closest overture made by the Florida bill can be read into the statement “school guardians…have no authority to act in any law enforcement capacity except to the extent necessary to prevent or abate an active assailant incident.” With no clear objectives, or a road map for implementation, the first priority for decision makers is to define objectives that clearly explain the measurable actions required in order to achieve the broad goal of a safer school. Thus, these objectives should specifically define the following:
- What is the purpose and what are the measurable results that implementing a Guardian program is trying to achieve in pragmatic, tangible terms. These strategic statements should clarify the intent and actions expected from Guardians. For example, are Guardians expected to protect their self and others in their immediate vicinity (classroom or other), or are they to seek engagement during an active shooter?
- How many Guardians are needed to achieve the stated goal and objectives based on the school’s square footage, the number of students, their hours of operations etc.?
- At what point in time should school Guardians intervene in an evolving incident?
- What are the Guardian responsibilities related to Law Enforcement and First Responders on the spectrum of an active shooter response timeline?
2. Objective based policy and procedures
Guardian organizational policies should be based on the specific objectives of the program implementation. These policies and guidelines must be integrated into the overall campus policies, and coincide with its emergency response strategy. Any potential contradiction with existing policies and procedures must be resolved prior to implementing the program and should clearly delineate the responsibilities and functions of individuals, who are simultaneously Guardian program “volunteers”, and employees and teachers with direct classroom oversight. New policies should be reconciled into the following areas:
- Legal Liabilities
- Relations with Law Enforcement
- Federal, State and county compliance
- Workers’ rights and responsibilities
- Required disclosures
3. Training and evaluation
The training set by the local Sheriff’s department or any other governing body serves as a baseline for initiating a Guardian program. Beyond the initial training, decision makers must consider the applicable level of training throughout the year, and determine how often Guardian criminal backgrounds and psychological evaluations should be conducted.
The Guardian’s mission and profile should dictate the level of training Guardians receive. These volunteers, as individuals who are expected to accurately shoot in a crowd in an extreme environment should train as Law Enforcement entities (SWAT) and elite military units who have a similar mission. It must be clear to any participants that the required Guardian training level far exceeds the training level of police officers. Therefore decision makers should take into account routine training, range time, qualification standards, supervision, associated costs, liability for employee/volunteer, self-reporting of disqualifying factors (criminal, medical, psychological), among other considerations.
Additional training that can potentially mitigate certain risks to the institution, as well as operationally improve the Guardian response and communications with First Responders would include but not be limited to the following classes:
- CPR, and basic first aid to gunshot and trauma wounds
- Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) National Incident Management System (NIMS) online certificate training classes (IS 100, IS 200 and IS 700)
- FEMA active shooter certificate training (IS 907)
- “Crowd Manager” training
4. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Law Enforcement, First Responders and security service providers
Arming teachers and staff increases the risk to Law Enforcement, First Responders, and to school security service providers. Decision makers must take every possible precaution to prevent the possibility of friendly fire. An MOU between the school district/University and Law Enforcement, First Responders, and security service providers can clarify the roles and objectives of each entity and most importantly increase the awareness to the presence of armed campus employees and any agreed upon identifiers of these individuals. Due to the inherent risk, in some cases adding a Guardian program could trigger the removal of a security provider, which could be contradictory to the reasoning behind implementing a guardian like program in the first place.
The defined objectives and mission of a Guardian program dictates the recommended training and equipment of participating teachers and staff. If armed employees are formally expected to, “seek and engage” an active shooter, then they should get the standardized equipment to execute their mission profile. Mostly similar to police SWAT gear, the recommended equipment would fall under one of the following categories - Guardian personal safety, effectiveness and identification. Some of the options could include but are not limited to:
- Personal safety - bulletproof vest, helmet, protective glasses, trauma kit, tourniquet
- Effectiveness - Flashlight, gun laser sight, gun night sights, additional magazines
- Identification - Gun reflective tape, “security” marked ball cap, “security” marking on vest
As extreme as this list might appear, if the school is assigning active shooter responsibility to teachers and staff, it must provide them with essential equipment that is the standard in the industry for active response operators. The “volunteer” status of these employees does not preclude them from basic rights, nor does it allow the campus or school to authorize suicide missions on its behalf.
Regardless of the type of insurance the campus has, arming teachers and staff poses a major risk to any armed employees, and to the school community as a whole. After arming employees, schools may have difficulty obtaining insurance, and should expect changes to their annual premiums. Additionally, institutions implementing a Guardian like program should revise their insurance policies and should discuss any new risks based on the enacting of a new program, as research indicates that the presence of guns increase the risks posed to children. Accidental discharge and stolen or forgotten weapons can lead to inadvertent death or injury. Moreover, even an optimal Guardian armed response to an active shooter can result in innocent bystander deaths or injury due to ammunition over penetration, mistaken identification and friendly fire. Furthermore, the inaction of a “volunteer” Guardian during an active shooter situation can turn into a legal challenge as neglectful if the Guardian program objectives set a responsibility to act in a certain way and the Guardian does not follow the protocols.
The unspoken component of Guardian programs is the assumption that arming teachers and staff is less expensive than hiring police officers, or uniformed, armed security guards. Cost however cannot, and should never be the primary objective of an armed presence on school grounds. Decision makers from the non-security world need to be aware of the difficulty of assessing value in an area where a non-event is a considered a successful outcome. For example, is there a deterrence value to uniformed security guards verses unidentified Guardians?
Decision makers must also be aware that Guardian programs are relatively new and uncontested in court. As such, if an armed volunteer employee is considered neglect for actions that are taken or disregarded during an event, a legal proceeding could occur, and with limited case law on these programs, this matter could have unintended consequences to the institution. Decision makers must keep in mind that there is no empiric evidence to support the notion of improved school safety by arming teachers and staff. Nevertheless, there is clear data indicating that there is a far greater probability that a gun will be stolen, used for self-harm or accidentally discharged than to stop a violent crime.
Implementing a Guardian program at its core assumes a linear relationship between arming teachers and staff to improved campus safety. The fact is that there is neither evidence to support that assertion, nor empirical corroboration that a Guardian program is a superior alternative to armed police, school resource officers, or armed security guards on campus grounds. Considering the unknowns related to Guardian type programs, and the absence nationally recognized implementation standards, decision makers need to separate the political, emotional and factual reasoning of such a program and only consider the most effective means of achieving the stated objectives while minimizing risks to the students, staff and the institution.