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A teacher, a bus driver, a retired cop: Meet some of Florida's new school officers

Pinellas Sheriff's trainers line the back of the room Monday as more than 100 school security officers, or "guardians,"  began training -- part of the state's response to the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting. "You're going to be some people's last hope of a savior in the worst time," Sheriff's Lt. Greg Danzig told the recruits. "It's an unnecessary evil, but the people in this room are the ones that are going to do something about it." [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
Pinellas Sheriff's trainers line the back of the room Monday as more than 100 school security officers, or "guardians," began training -- part of the state's response to the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting. "You're going to be some people's last hope of a savior in the worst time," Sheriff's Lt. Greg Danzig told the recruits. "It's an unnecessary evil, but the people in this room are the ones that are going to do something about it." [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Jul. 3, 2018

LARGO — They came together Monday morning from different paths.

A school bus driver who loves her students enough to want to protect them. A former campus security guard and father of three who has taught his children to be prepared for anything. A school shooting survivor who went on to become a teacher.

Their mission was the same.

"You're going to be some people's last hope of a savior in the worst time," said Pinellas County Sheriff's Lt. Greg Danzig, who described school shootings as evil. "But the people in this room are the ones that are going to do something about it."

Monday marked the first day of training for one of Florida's first classes of school security officers. The 84 people who gathered in a Sheriff's Office classroom soon after sunrise were just a glimpse of the massive undertaking to place armed guards in every Florida school, one of many legislative mandates that came in response to February's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Security guards to be temporary fix in Pinellas schools

High schools and middle schools generally already had sworn school resource officers, but the legislation mandated that elementary schools, too, must have some kind of armed guard, sworn or not. For Pinellas, that means 82 schools. In Hillsborough, it's about 100. For Pasco and Hernando, about 50 and 10, respectively.

Statewide, a Department of Education survey from March said districts need about 1,550 guards to staff every school at a price tag of $115 million.

Hillsborough and Pasco have gone the security guard route, while Hernando is staffing with school resource deputies. Pinellas School Board members at first wanted to complete the task with sworn officers and deputies. But, faced with the tight deadline and a steep cost, they changed course toward a mix of mostly security guards with some sworn officers.

Since then, hundreds of applications have rolled in — almost 400 for security officers and about 100 for SROs as of the middle of last week, according to the school district.

"I am comfortable at this point where we are with the pool of candidates that we have, and we will meet our goal," said Pinellas County Schools Police Chief Luke Williams.

The school district conducts an initial screening and interview. The candidates who pass that are then pushed to the Sheriff's Office for background checks, psychological evaluations and polygraph exams. Human resources staffers in both agencies have been working around the clock to make the hires; one Sheriff's Office HR detective was on her 18th straight day last week.

Williams said he is looking for applicants with impeccable backgrounds who appreciate a diverse community and get along well with kids. Previous law enforcement, military or security experience is a plus.

Monday's training offered a look at the pool so far.

Jermaine Ferguson, a former college security guard who most recently worked as a ranger at Fort De Soto Park, and Peter Cziesla, a retired Kenneth City police officer, chatted like friends before the session started even though they'd only met that morning.

Ferguson, 34, said he heard about the security officer job from a neighbor. It took on special meaning for him as a father of three kids, ages 14, 12 and 11. He never thought he'd have to worry about them facing an active shooter after he dropped them off at school, but now, "they know pretty much what to do in every scenario," he said.

Later, Paul Rozelle, an attorney for the Sheriff's Office, launched into legal training that included lessons on how the school security program works, criminal justice values and ethics, and Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures.

Despite the wide range of topics, Rozelle said much of it won't apply directly to the security officers; Williams said they will take on a strictly protective role. The exact dos and don'ts of the job are still in the works.

"With great power comes great responsibility," Rozelle said, "and you're sort of the 'break-glass-in-case-of-emergency' guys."

Pinellas, exceeding the legislative requirement, is giving its officers 176 hours of training. An itinerary for the next month shows an array of activities: 96 hours of gun practice, 24 hours of defensive tactics lessons, 16 hours of active assailant training and a few more odds and ends.

As the day chugged along, Vikki Mitalovich-Feranec stepped outside during a break. The 55-year-old worked as a bus driver for Pinellas Park High, Azalea Middle and Marjorie Rawlings Elementary.

"I love my kids on my bus," she said. "I'm going to miss them, but I feel like this way I can protect them."

Most of the officers haven't been assigned to schools yet, except those guarding charter schools, which hire and place their own.

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

One was Connie Roeleven, who teaches physical education at Plato Academy Tarpon Springs. Roeleven, 45, said she will continue teaching but will find a substitute teacher for her class and serve as a back-up officer on days when a guard at any of Plato's Pinellas campuses is absent.

Roeleven had her own encounter with a school shooting. She was a freshman at Pinellas Park High when a teenage boy opened fire in 1988, killing an assistant principal. She remembers hearing the gunshots, hiding under her desk in history class, listening as students scampered down the hallway.

"I know what it's like to be a student in a situation that's very, very terrifying," she said. "I want to protect the kids."

Times staff writers Megan Reeves and Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at kvarn@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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