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Florida lawmakers mandated armed guards in schools after Parkland. One just killed three people.

Like many counties, Hillsborough turned to retired law enforcement for security after state lawmakers mandated armed personnel at every school. One of them, Terry Strawn, killed three family members and himself on Wednesday.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times A Hillsborough County Sheriff Forensics Deputy enters a home where a deputy may have killed one of his relatives near Plant City High School on Wednesday, December 19, 2018. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigates a deputy killed three relatives at their homes in Dover, then kills himself near Plant City High School, the Sheriff says.
Published Dec. 20, 2018
Updated Dec. 20, 2018

On paper, Terry Strawn was the kind of person Hillsborough County officials had in mind when they needed more armed security in schools.

There were 176 public and charter elementary schools that would require armed protection under a new state law responding to the Feb. 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killings in Parkland.

Announcing their school safety plan on May 10, Sheriff Chad Chronister and Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins laid out daunting statistics: Gaps in coverage meant they would need 101 more officers, with just three months before the 2018-19 school year would begin.

Their ideal candidate, Chronister said, was "someone with a passion for service." He noted that two-thirds of the school district's own security officers were retired law enforcement, "and bring a wealth of institutional knowledge."

Strawn fit the bill. He was a one-time "Officer of the Year" who retired two years ago from the Sheriff's Office after a 25-year career. He passed the required psychological screening and this fall took a post at Valrico Elementary, where his 6-year-old granddaughter was a student.

On Wednesday, Strawn used his handgun to kill his wife, daughter and granddaughter, and then himself near Plant City High School.

"There was no indication whatsoever that would lead a prudent and reasonable person to believe that this deputy would ever conduct himself in the manner that he did," Chronister said afterward.

Law enforcement and lawmakers are now grappling with questions after Wednesday's tragedy, many similar to ones they faced after Parkland. Was it a complete fluke, or was it the unintended result of state lawmakers' decision to employ an armed response to the threat of guns in schools?

And there's this: What if Strawn's rampage was directed at the elementary students he was sworn to protect, instead of his family?

"This also just convinced me that more people in schools with guns is not the answer," Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old Parkland victim Jaime Guttenberg, tweeted Wednesday night.

But Senate President Bill Galvano, the sponsor of this year's gun and school safety bill, said it's too soon to draw conclusions. He said lawmakers wisely required a background check and psychological screening of new armed guards, though he added: "You're not going to catch everything."

"For me it corroborates that we need to have the adequate and strict screening going forward," said Galvano, a Brandon Republican. "This incident is random in nature and we're going to learn more about the real motivation."

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Neither Eakins nor Chronister embraced President Donald Trump's idea after Parkland, which was to encourage teachers to carry firearms. Nor did most teachers, Republican Gov. Rick Scott or Democratic lawmakers.

A compromise emerged in the form of a guardian program that would train and arm school employees who were not classroom teachers. It was named for Aaron Feis, an athletic coach at the Parkland school who lost his life while trying to defend the students.

The law set aside $67 million for the guardian program and $97.5 million for school resource officers as part of a $400 million package to better secure schools and offer more campus mental health services.

In Hillsborough and across the state, counties have turned to retired law enforcement officers to fill some of these jobs.

The Trump administration is now encouraging school districts across the country to do the same. A much-anticipated post-Parkland school safety report from the U.S. Department of Education included an entire chapter on the benefits of hiring retired military and police to protect students.

"School safety would benefit from more veterans and retired law enforcement officers leveraging their knowledge and experience to serve our nation's students," the report said. "These individuals not only have the potential to be effective educators in the classroom but also are underutilized human assets for securing and protecting our schools. Because of their unique skillset with managing conflict and emergency preparedness, they can help foster safe school climates."

The Department of Education didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

A state commission to address school safety will deliver its report on Jan. 1. The report is expected to recommend allowing qualified teachers to carry a gun on school grounds.

Neither Scott, nor Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, immediately responded to a request for comment.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who voted for the new law, said Wednesday's tragedy should serve as a warning "that the whole thing needs to be looked at top to bottom."

"We cannot put students in harm's way in the effort to secure schools, which the circumstances that developed here clearly had that potential," Moskowitz said. "This is a wake-up call that thankfully did not lead to any tragedy in a school."

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Hillsborough was in a unique position to respond to the new state law, with an in-house security system that had existed for more than 40 years.

More than 100 guards — armed but not sworn law enforcement — provided protection at district buildings and schools in high-crime neighborhoods.

The pay was relatively low, typically $27,000 a year. But many had pensions from prior service in law enforcement or the military. Sworn officers from the Sheriff's Office and police agencies already were deployed at the high schools and middle schools, and the district enjoyed close working relationships with all of the agencies.

The challenge they faced was the need for so many recruits to guarantee protection at every school, as the new law mandates.

"We did a lot more robust hiring than we ever had," said John Newman, a former Tampa Police Department captain who has been chief of security for the school district since 2014.

Newman said any time there is accelerated hiring, "I always worry that if you loosen your standard, you'll have bigger issues."

But he said that did not happen.

"We wanted to make sure we got it right with who we hired," he said. "If someone wasn't cutting it, we let them go. I don't think any corners were cut because we had a number of people we had to hire."

In the summer months, dozens of recruits were put through the four-week district training course, which comes before the 132 hours of firearms instruction that the state requires sheriffs to administer under the Aaron Feis program.

Strawn was not brought in by the district. He was part of a smaller group who came in through the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Newman could not speak specifically to Strawn's psychological screening test, which the Sheriff's Office administered. Standard practice, including in the district, is to administer an exhaustive series that "beats you down to where they keep asking you very similar questions, and eventually they get a profile."

However, he said, even the best psychological test is a snapshot of a person's psyche at a moment in time, and not fail safe.

Galvano said lawmakers should look at whether they can do more to ensure first responders have adequate access to mental health services.

In the aftermath of the shooting, the district has grief counselors at Valrico Elementary, where Strawn's youngest victim — his granddaughter Londyn — was a first-grade student.

Newman said he now plans to make suicide prevention a standard part of training for his officers.

"Anyone who wants to politicize this, it's crazy," he said. "It's horrible."

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