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Florida School Hires Armed Combat Vets to Protect Students

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“We’re not looking for a fair fight. We’re looking at an overwhelming advantage.” The Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto decided to hire guards as a reaction to the Parkland shooting last February.

Thursday is the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Now a school in Palmetto is trying to make sure a similar tragedy doesn’t happen there.

By the end of February, the students at Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Florida, will see two combat veterans – each carrying a 9-millimeter Glock handgun and a semiautomatic rifle with a 17-inch barrel – whose sole job is to patrol the hallways and take down active shooters, should there ever be one.

“We’re not looking for a fair fight,” Manatee School for the Arts Principal Bill Jones told the New York Times of the school’s decision to employ two guards. “We’re looking at an overwhelming advantage.”

While some may feel Manatee School for the Arts is taking its response to school shootings to the extreme, local law enforcement officials have reported investigating dozens of threats against schools within the past year. Earlier in the month, the Bradenton Herald reported that authorities have investigated 56 threats made against schools in Manatee County since 17 people were killed in a February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Jones wanted combat veterans who can be trusted to react quickly and correctly under fire. One of the guards, who has 15 years of infantry experience, has been on campus for a couple of months and the second veteran guardian will start working later in February after he completes the required 132 hours of firearm safety and proficiency training.

The New York Times reports that one of the veterans will carry a Glock handgun in 9mm and the other will carry a semiautomatic rifle. The rifle is a Kel-Tec RDB 17, which shoots the same rounds as an AR-15 (.223 or 5.56). Jones noted that the semiautomatic rifle is “just a much more effective weapon than the handgun is.”

“I wouldn’t hire anybody who hadn’t been shot at and fired back,” Jones said. “I need someone who has been in that situation.”

While Jones acknowledged that local law enforcement would respond to reports of an intruder at the school as quickly as possible, he told the Bradenton Herald that every second counts in an active shooter situation. According to Jones, a near immediate response time is vital as a shooter could take multiple lives in a matter of seconds.

“If someone walks onto this campus, they’re going to be shot and killed,” he told the Bradenton Herald. “We’re not going to talk with them. We’re not going to negotiate. We are going to put them down, as quickly as possible.”

He hopes publicizing the new hires will deter anyone who might be thinking about shooting up the school.

“We’ve had a couple of incidents and we just called and they’re here in three minutes,” Jones told the station. “Unfortunately, you look at parkland and in three minutes how many people were killed. So you know you can’t expect much more from the police, there’s only so much they can do and the rest of it is your responsibility.”

The guardians’ salaries of about $50,000 “substantially exceeds” the state allocation the school received, but Jones believes the students’ safety is worth the cost.

Although Jones said “most parents have been very accepting,” the school is hoping to quell safety concerns by requiring the guardians to keep the chambers of the rifles empty. In addition, the guns are not stored on campus.

A Florida bill, named the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, makes it mandatory for all schools to have “one or more safe-school officers” who, per the law, have the authority to carry weapons. Manatee School for the Arts, a charter for 2,100 middle and high school students, is the only school in Manatee County that chose to hire guards who carry rifles, according to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department, which trained the guards.

The Palmetto Police chief supports the use of semiautomatic weapons, something not everyone was comfortable with.

“Assault rifles, whether you are for them or against them, are prolific in our society,” Chief Scott Tyler said in December to the Herald-Tribune. “So why would we not want the school guardian to have parity with that potential threat?”

The decision to patrol with long guns is “very unusual,” said Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, which has performed security assessments at dozens of public school systems throughout Florida, including three of the state’s largest school districts.

“It’s not something that we typically advise our clients to do for a variety of reasons,” Mr. Dorn said, in part because someone might knock out the officer and take the weapon, and it’s more difficult to subdue and handcuff an assailant while carrying a long gun. “Our mindset is so locked into the rare but truly catastrophic active-shooter event.”

On school property, students and school employees are more likely to die by suicide than a mass shooting, he added.

Spending a lot of money to arm security officers addresses only one type of school safety concern, said Amanda Klinger, the director of operations at the Educator’s School Safety Network, an organization that trains educators and administrators in violence-prevention measures.

“We don’t know that those security interventions will stop the things that they’re seeking to stop,” Ms. Klinger said. “My question is, what else are they doing to keep kids safe in schools? What are they doing to keep kids safe from risks or threats other than active shooters?”

Walt Zalisko, a retired police chief who now owns a Daytona Beach–based global investigative group and police management consulting business, also has some doubts regarding Jones’ plan.

“You don’t walk around with an assault rifle strapped to your chest in a school. That is not the normal policy of police agencies,” he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

He said school guardians are more effective when they engage with students and form positive relationships rather than focus only on stopping mass shootings – which, while tragic, are relatively rare.

“His job is to protect the kids, and he can do that with a handgun, but it is also to form positive relationships,” Zalisko said. “Develop information on who may have drugs or weapons. There is a lot involved.”

You can see a segment on the school’s guardians in the video below:

Author: USA Really