The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office made a big purchase with the state funding it received to start a school guardian program: a 300-degree use-of-force simulator that lets trainees step into a virtual active-shooter situation.
The cost: $124,995.
Last year, Florida lawmakers doled out $9.4 million to help train “guardians,” school-district employees who can carry concealed weapons on campus and help in active-shooter situations. Classroom teachers cannot participate, but principals, coaches and other employees can.
The program was created as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. The legislation sought to make school campuses safer after last year’s deadly shooting in Broward County.
Two dozen counties opted to use guardians in their traditional schools. Each filed budget requests with the state Department of Education. They had broad discretion over how to spend the money and few rules to follow.
Most asked for money for training supplies, weapons and salaries for the guardians. But several allocated funds for clothing, banners and travel, according to a review of budgets by the Tampa Bay Times and University of Florida journalism students participating in a data reporting class.
The funds were meant to be used “solely for activities that directly support the accomplishment of the program” plus a one-time $500 stipend for school guardians, according to the law and grant application.
Some programs decided to pay their guardians an hourly salary. Others only offered the $500.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office asked for the most money: more than $1 million for guardians in traditional schools, plus an additional $464,000 for guardians for the county’s charter schools and $46,000 for administrative costs.
Pinellas and Hillsborough requested about $1.5 million and $943,000 respectively. The money was largely for supplies, training costs and stipends, according to the proposals.
Brevard’s total ask of $863,476 included the MILO 300 training simulator.
The 300-degree, five-projector machine simulates real-life situations involving active shooters. The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office was no stranger to the virtual reality tool. It already had one, according to an Air Force press release from April 2017.
The cost of the new machine surpassed the total budget requests of at least a dozen other counties, records show.
When asked about the purchase, media relations deputy Tod Goodyear confirmed that the department already owned a MILO system. The new machine, he said, had been “received and installed.”
In its application, the department said the “equipment would help the Guardians further develop decision making skills that are paramount to deciding whether or not to use a firearm during a critical incident.”
Brevard also planned to spend money on duty weapons, training rifles and handguns, and firearm range equipment such as practice targets and silhouettes, records show.
Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said each sheriff’s office had worked with their local school district to create a budget for the program.
Counties could also put their own money toward the program, she said.
“Other than ensuring that each district’s budget appropriation meets the statutory requirements, the department is not involved in oversight,” Etters said in a statement.
Clay County got a little more than $2,500 to send two staff members to a “racial intelligence” training course in Tennessee. Clay County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Chris Padgett said the trip was a necessity to fulfill the diversity training required by the state.
“Instead of paying people each time the program comes through to come in to teach, we took two of our members, sent them to this program in Tennessee where it was being offered and we actually got them certified to be instructors,” Padgett said. “From that point forward, they can instruct in house.”
At least eight other counties allocated funds for diversity training.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office requested $141,000 for psychological exams and polygraph services, a total of more than $1,300 per guardian.
The office did not respond to a request for comment.
Volusia County asked for more than $50,000 for baseball caps, windbreakers, polo shirts, reflective sashes, gun belts and bulletproof vests. The cost was about $1,000 per guardian, records show.
Volusia County schools coordinator for emergency services and school safety Craig L. Pender Sr. said most of the clothing came through the district’s warehouse. The uniforms would make the guardians visible and identifiable, Pender added, and help prevent friendly fire in a crisis.
“Part of our push is to make our guardians a part of their school community,” he wrote in an email. “Our guardians are expected to be visible, and the uniform makes them easily identifiable no matter which campus you step on.”
The smallest asks of around $50,000 each came from Nassau, Gilchrist and Sarasota counties.
No guardians had started in Nassau, said Allan Reynolds, the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office chief financial officer.
The sheriff’s office hopes to start training at least five of them in January, Reynolds said.
Cat Gloria, Brandon Meyer and Sarah Stanley are students at the University of Florida. This report was edited by Times deputy investigations editor Kathleen McGrory. Contact her at [email protected].