These school districts tried to arm coaches. It’s harder than it sounds.

More than a third of the school systems had problems getting the controversial program off the ground.
Former law enforcement officer Scott Bowlin, 47, prepares to enter a classroom during active shooter drills put on by the Pasco County Sheriff as training for the Guardian program. Some districts have had trouble getting the program off the ground. (Luis Santana | Times)
Former law enforcement officer Scott Bowlin, 47, prepares to enter a classroom during active shooter drills put on by the Pasco County Sheriff as training for the Guardian program. Some districts have had trouble getting the program off the ground. (Luis Santana | Times)
Published Jan. 12, 2019|Updated Jan. 12, 2019

After the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, Brevard County Schools Assistant Superintendent Matt Reed faced a challenge unlike any in his career.

His team had to find, hire and train more than two dozen new employees to carry firearms on school campuses and protect students in the event of a school shooter. They had less than six months.

The district missed the deadline.

“Even though school started in August, it really was another month and a half after school started that we were ready,” Reed said.

Brevard isn’t the only school system to have trouble complying with a new state law that allows certain employees to be armed, according to an examination of how the program is being implemented across the state by the Tampa Bay Times and University of Florida student journalists.

Some small districts struggled to recruit enough so-called school guardians to keep their schools safe. Levy County launched a program, only to have nobody apply for weeks.

Others had trouble with the guardians they hired. In Duval County, a school safety assistant was arrested for pawning a service weapon issued to him by the school district. In Hillsborough, a school security deputy resigned after exposing students to pepper spray.

The problems have piled up, largely unnoticed, even as the concept of vastly expanding the controversial program has gathered momentum.

Last month, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission recommended the Legislature allow teachers to participate, saying the current law is too restrictive to keep kids safe.

The Coach Aaron Feis School Guardian Program currently allows certain school-district employees who are not classroom teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus.

School guardians cannot make arrests. But they are expected to protect students in the case of an active shooter.

The program was created last year as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, which aimed to increase school security in the wake of the shooting in Parkland. Florida school boards were required to either put a sworn law enforcement officer or a guardian on every campus.

The legislature gave them until the start of the school year to comply.

The idea of putting more guns on elementary and secondary school campuses has transfixed the state and the nation. President Donald Trump tweeted his support for arming teachers last year. In Broward County, where the shooting took place, the concept sparked protests. School board members first voted against arming school personnel, then conceded they couldn’t afford to comply with the law any other way.

Journalists at the University of Florida participating in a data reporting class under the direction of Times editors reviewed news clips from around the state and reached out to many of the school districts that opted to use guardians in their traditional schools. More than a third of the 24 districts had problems in the program’s first few months.

Pinellas and Pasco did not have obvious issues. Hernando did not participate.

In Brevard, pushback from the community held up the process, Reed said.

The sheriff didn’t want to survey the community and hold town hall meetings on the subject “in part because that would have meant that the security specialists or the guardians, whatever we choose, would not have been trained by the first day of school,” he said.

The Okeechobee School Board decided to participate in June. But the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Office won’t begin training guardians until January 2019, Sgt. Michael Hazellief said.

Hazellief said training six to 10 volunteers would be challenging because of the high standards set in the law.

“We have that many people who are interested,” he said. “Out of that, I doubt we’ll have that high of a success rate.”

The Lafayette County school district also began the year without any guardians, Sheriff Brian Lamb said. By January, a few volunteers were nearing the end of the training process, but none were active in schools.

“It’s gonna be hard for us to get it all completed,” Lamb said.

Levy County had no applicants at the start of October, Assistant Superintendent John Lott said. Asked in January if anyone had applied, Lott would not give an answer, citing security risks.

“You don’t want the bad guys to know whether you’ve got 100 (guardians) or one,” Lott said.

Duval County faced a different kind of challenge: Several parents sued the school district on November, claiming that it is illegal for school safety assistants to carry weapons on school grounds.

“The (school) board adopted a program to hire inadequately trained individuals who are not law enforcement officers to carry guns while policing public schools,” the parents wrote.

Three nonprofit organizations — the League of Women Voters, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Southern Poverty Law Center — joined the lawsuit, which calls for the removal of firearms from the safety assistants’ possession.

Duval County Schools spokesman Tracy Pierce declined to comment on the litigation.

The school safety assistants were required to undergo 200 hours of training, including firearms courses, from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, according to the Duval County Public Schools website.

In Manatee County, guardian John Cinque was fired from his duties at Kinnan Elementary School in Sarasota after the Bradenton Herald unearthed a series of controversial post on his Facebook page.

One displayed a SWAT helmet with a bullet hole, according to a district investigatory report. The caption — “Citizens may resist unlawful arrest to the point of taking an arresting officer’s life if necessary” — was attributed to an 1893 court case in the Indiana Supreme Court. The quotation, however, does not appear in the ruling.

Cinque told school district investigators that he “stood by his beliefs,” but said he was “not a right-wing extremist.” He could not be reached for comment for this report.

Manatee County school district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum declined to discuss Cinque’s case in further detail, but said guardians were trained and advised on social media in advance.

District officials were taking a closer look at the guardians’ social media accounts, he added.

In Hillsborough County, a school security deputy resigned after exposing several Lopez Elementary School students to pepper spray, according to the county sheriff’s office.

One student was taken to the school nurse and had to be treated with water and ice, the report said.

The district is using contracted deputies until it can hire and train more people to add to its armed security team. One of those deputies, Patricia Parker, sprayed the chemical agent into a napkin to show it to four students who were curious about the gear on her belt, the sheriff’s office said. Three students sat nearby and came into contact with the spray.

Hillsborough County Public Schools Security Services Chief John Newman said the chemical spray “doesn’t know a good guy or a bad guy.”

“It comes out in a big splat, and well, that splat will have collateral contamination in that classroom,” he said.

Parker, 56, began working with the sheriff’s office in May 1990 and retired from service in 2015. She was rehired in July as a school security deputy and resigned after the incident. She could not be reached for comment.

“That deputy retired that day knowing she had not performed to the standard we expect,” Hillsborough County sheriff's spokesman Daniel Alvarez said. “That’s not a toy and she knew that.”

A new deputy was put in the school when Parker resigned, Newman said.

Across the state, Duval County school safety assistant James Richard Johnson was arrested for pawning a service weapon issued to him by the school district two separate times, records show.

He used the Glock handgun for collateral to borrow $300 in August, records show.

Then, on Oct. 5, he pawned the weapon again, this time for $230.

Johnson could not be reached for comment. He resigned in October.

Danielle Thomas, the legislation chairwoman for the Florida PTA, said her organization had worried problems like this might arise if the state approved a school guardian program. The PTA wanted only sworn law enforcement officers on campuses, she said.

Thomas said she hopes to see the state lawmakers consider changes to the guardian program when the legislative session begins in March.

“We don’t want to necessarily be lenient on timelines,” she said. “But understand that not everything can be done in really short time frames if we want to do this and do this well.”

Katherine Campione, Vincent McDonald and Christina Morales are students at the University of Florida. This report was edited by Times deputy investigations editor Kathleen McGrory. Contact her at