By the end of February, students at Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Fla., will see two former combat veterans in body armor roaming the grounds, each carrying a 9-millimeter Glock handgun and a semiautomatic rifle with a 17-inch barrel.
If an armed intruder were to enter the campus, “we’re not looking for a fair fight,” Bill Jones, the principal, said in an interview. “We’re looking at an overwhelming advantage.”
Legislation passed after the Parkland massacre last year requires schools in Florida to have at least one “safe-school officer.” 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.
“It’s just a much more effective weapon than the handgun is,” Jones said.
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.
Dorn said he was not aware of any school guards in the United States who openly carry long guns, although it is not unusual in some areas overseas.
“It’s not something that we typically advise our clients to do for a variety of reasons,” he added, in part because someone might knock out the officer and take the weapon, and it is more difficult to subdue and handcuff an assailant while carrying a long gun.
Manatee School for the Arts is also adding a guard shack to its entrance and will raise its perimeter fencing by 2 feet.
Florida’s bill, named the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act after the school where the Parkland shooting occurred a year ago this week, gave schools the option of choosing between a school resource officer, who is employed by a law enforcement agency; a school safety officer, who is employed by either a law enforcement agency or by the district school board; or a school guardian, a school employee trained to stop lethal attacks.
Last year, an Associated Press survey found that nine of the state’s 67 countywide school districts are supplementing officers by employing full-time guardians. The survey did not specify the type of weapons the guards would be using.
“We have guardians in almost all of our elementary schools and in most of our charter schools,” said Michael Barber, a spokesman for the School District of Manatee County.
Each of the district’s public middle and high schools have school resource officers, he added.
Manatee School for the Arts hired one guardian with 15 years of infantry experience who has now been on campus for a couple of months, Jones said. A second guardian, also a combat veteran, is finishing his training and will begin working later this month, he added.
Guardians are required to complete at least 132 hours of firearm safety and proficiency training.
Jones said the school hired combat veterans because he wanted guards who would not hesitate to go after an active shooter. “I don’t want this to be the first time they’ve had someone shooting at them,” he said.
So far, Jones said, “most parents have been very accepting.”
To assuage safety concerns about the high-powered weapons, the school requires its guardians to keep the chambers of their Kel-Tec RDB semiautomatic rifles empty, and the guns are not stored on campus.
The presence of an armed guard does not necessarily deter violence. During the shooting last February that left 17 in Parkland dead, there was an armed school resource officer standing by the door to the building who was later widely criticized for not entering. (He said he thought at the time that the shooter was outside.)