SEBRING — A week after a state commission investigating the Parkland shooting massacre recommended arming teachers, it's unclear what consensus, if any, was reached by Florida's law enforcement officials.

"My constituents want to see their children protected by law enforcement officers,"  said Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman, whose wife is an assistant school superintendent. "It's not (a teacher's) place to carry guns. Their job is to love these children and teach them."

Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman (Photo courtesy of Highlands County Sheriff’s Office)
Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman (Photo courtesy of Highlands County Sheriff’s Office)

Blackman isn't alone. Sheriffs in Hamilton, Hardee and Levy counties told the Tampa Bay Times that law enforcement officers are the best option to guard schools — not teachers or other campus personnel.

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Their opinions expose a stark divide between some rural counties far from the state's major media markets, and a political consensus that has coalesced around the findings of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that dissected the February shooting that left 17 dead in Broward County.

The commission voted 13-1 last week to recommend  that teachers can be eligible as a "guardian" and that sheriff's offices could establish a guardian program if approved by the local school board.

The commission's chairman, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, said he now supports armed teachers because he believes they can save lives during the first few minutes of a mass shooting.

"We have to give people a fighting chance, we have to give them an opportunity to protect themselves," Gualtieri said. He said there aren't enough officers or money to hire one for every school, but even then officers need backup. "One good guy with a gun on campus is not enough."

Hardee County Sheriff Arnold Lanier said he's opposed to arming teachers.

It cost $200,000 to shift three of 22 deputies from road patrol to school duties, Lanier said.

Despite the potential savings from the guardian program, however, Lanier said he can't support arming school personnel.

"I will not do it,"he said.

The price of school security surged weeks after the February shooting, when Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring armed defenders in every school.

The mandate cost millions statewide. The law gives districts the option to have extra law enforcement offices to patrol the hallways or, in a cheaper alternative, train volunteer school personnel — including some teachers — to carry weapons. The state will pay the cost for districts to train guardians.

The commission voted last week to recommend that teachers can be eligible as a "guardian" and that sheriff's offices could establish a guardian program if approved by the local school board.

Each guardian must pass an extensive background check and undertake more than 100 hours of training, defensive tactics and legal education from Sheriff's Offices.

Lawmakers modeled the guardian program after a similar one that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd created to arm instructors and administrators at local colleges. The specialists earn less than deputies and are off in the summer.

In Polk County, 95 safety specialists, along with school resource officers, protect schools.

Judd said sheriffs and police chiefs can save overtime by hiring guardians, which receive 25 percent more firearm training than peace officers.

"They don't have to do it," Judd said about overtime. "I'm not paying one cent in overtime."

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd speaks during a news conference  in Winter Haven. CHRIS URSO | Times
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd speaks during a news conference  in Winter Haven. CHRIS URSO | Times

With so many school shootings, Judd said it's no longer viable for officers to be the only ones to respond to the threat because shooters kill most victims within minutes, long before police can arrive.

"We have to change what we're doing," Judd said. "We have to get someone to engage the shooter within seconds, not minutes."

Marion County supports arming school personnel, but the sheriff's office prefers law enforcement to provide the security.

In April, a 19-year-old entered a high school and shot a student on a day when students planned walkouts to mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Marion's Chief Deputy Robert Douglas said the Sheriff's Office, County Commission, school district and several communities created a partnership to add extra officers.

While "law enforcement is the best line of defense," the guardians provide additional protection, Douglas said, adding: "Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our kids."

The Florida Association of School Resource Officers oppose arming any school personnel.

Lake County Sheriff's Lt. Michael Marden, the group's president, said arming teachers "adds more stress" to an active-shooter situation.

"We don't want to get into a gunfight with anybody but the bad guy," he said.

Money isn't the only issue with the new law.

Hiring officers typically takes six months or more.

School resource officer salaries vary from $30,000 to $65,000 depending on location. That doesn't include a patrol car, uniform and training each year.

Blackman, the Highlands County sheriff, said he had to add 10 school resource deputies to a unit of eight. To fill the spots, detectives, K–9 handlers and others from specialty units have worked overtime on off days, he said.

Since school started in August, Blackman said he has paid nearly $14,000 in overtime. He expects to ask county commissioners to shift more money to his budget.

A September incident, Blackman said, illustrates why he prefers deputies over guardians.

After a parent left an elementary school with a visitor pass, a deputy walked to the dad's car and found him smoking marijuana. The deputy then found a handgun in the vehicle. Teachers and school personnel are not trained to handle those situations, the sheriff said, adding: "There's a need for deputies to be there."

In Levy County, Sheriff Bobby McCallum said he is short $300,000 to cover the cost of adding school resource deputies. He plans to ask the County Commission for money.

The guardian program, McCallum said, is "not viable" because not enough people volunteered. He has nearly exhausted his overtime budget to protect schools.

Regardless of difficulties, sheriffs said they're united to protect students.

"I don't have anything that concerns me or worries me more," McCallum said. "My concern is to keep the students and teachers safe. It's been an extreme worry for all the sheriffs. It's a challenge."

Contact Mark Puente and [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.