NEW PORT RICHEY — The students at Odessa Elementary School thank their favorite employees with colorful notes in the shape of paw prints.
Danielle Peterson has worked at the school for only six months. But already, she has a collection of cards.
"Having you here makes me feel safer," one of them said.
Peterson is Odessa's first school safety guard. She's the only school employee allowed to carry a concealed weapon on campus. She can't make arrests, but she is trained to protect students in the event of a school shooting.
Peterson started in the role in August, just months after the Florida Legislature passed a controversial law allowing certain school-district employees to carry weapons in schools. Teachers were not eligible to participate.
So far, Peterson, the school's principal and district superintendent say the experience has been a success.
It comes as parents, teachers and policy makers across Florida are gearing up for another round of impassioned debate over the state's school guardian program. Although some school systems were concerned about arming employees, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently said he supports rolling over $57 million in unspent guardian funds into next year's budget to encourage more districts to participate. And lawmakers are considering expanding the program to let teachers be among the armed employees.
Under the existing law, districts placed either so-called guardians or sworn law enforcement officers in each of their schools.
Pasco County already had law enforcement officers in its middle schools and high schools. Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning would have preferred to add officers to elementary schools, he said, but the cost made it prohibitive.
To comply with the law — but avoid arming existing employees — Browning came up with the "guard" program. In Pasco schools, guards are not ordinary school employees, but rather people with law enforcement or military experience who have undergone extensive training to keep students safe.
"I sleep very, very soundly at night knowing we have those highly trained men and women on our campuses," Browning said.
The district had no trouble filling the positions. Just 24 hours after posting the jobs, about 125 people had applied, the superintendent said. The district hired 56.
Vetting the applicants took three months, Pasco school security director Chris Stowe said. Each candidate had to pass a background screening, a physical agility test, firearms training, a drug test and a psychological evaluation.
Stowe looked for other qualities, too. District leaders wanted individuals who understood what their role would be in an elementary school environment. The guards should approachable, greet kids with a smile and ask about their day.
Each elementary school now has an assigned guard. They come from the FBI, police departments across the country, the Florida Department of Corrections, and the U.S. Army and Air Force, school district records show.
The average guard has about 21 years of professional experience.
The pay is $20 an hour.
Peterson is an Army veteran and former police officer. She spent 25 years in public service and security.
Like the school safety guards assigned to other Pasco elementary schools, Peterson wears a black polo and khaki pants provided by the district.
"I bought my own shoes, and that's it," she said.
Peterson's days are filled with high-fives and fist bumps from the students.
"I'm not looking to save the world," she said. "I just think we need positive people."
She starts each morning differently, so nobody can pick up on her routine. She frequently scans the teachers' parking lot for unfamiliar vehicles.
"I don't just sit in the office and wait to be called in," Peterson said.
For Pasco, the program has required an investment. The district received about $2.4 million in state funding to launch the initiative this school year, but had to spend an additional $700,000 from its own coffers to cover the costs, Browning said.
The school safety guard program has received no pushback at Odessa, Principal Teresa Love said.
Peterson said the highest praise comes from parents.
"When a parent thanks me for being here, I feel like I'm worthy to take care of their children," she said.
Romy Ellenbogen and Sofia Millar are students at the University of Florida. This report was edited by Times deputy investigations editor Kathleen McGrory. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.