OKEECHOBEE -- Okeechobee’s Guardians in the Schools program had its first graduation ceremony on Thursday, April 11, and according to Lt. Chris Hans, they couldn’t have asked for a better group to start out with. In an effort to increase the safety of local schoolchildren, the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office and the Okeechobee County School Board decided to participate in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which was included in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act in March 2018. Participation in the program is voluntary, but if the school district chooses to participate, each guardian must be given a minimum of 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training, pass psychological evaluation, submit to and pass drug tests and complete certified diversity training.
The guardian program is named for assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who was killed during the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when he pushed a student out of the path of gunfire and shielded several students with his own body. Seventeen people were killed on that horrible day, and the goal of the guardian program is for a tragedy like that never to happen again.
The identities of the guardians will be known only to the sheriff’s office and the principals of the schools where the guardians work, and they will continue to work in their normal positions. Each guardian will receive a one-time, $500 stipend from funds allocated by Gov. Ron DeSantis for the program, but after that, any costs will be paid for by the volunteer or by the sheriff’s office. Okeechobee is one of only 20 counties with a Guardian program.
During the graduation ceremony, Sheriff Noel Stephen spoke highly of the graduates. “I’m proud to say these graduates are part of our family,” he said. They met three times a week for almost three months, and Training Sgt. Michael Hazellief said it was grueling. “These people worked all day and then came out here for four hours, three nights a week and never complained.”
Sgt. Hazellief said there was a common theme when he asked each potential guardian why he or she wanted to do this. Each one said something along the lines of this he said, “If I had the opportunity to save my students’ lives and didn’t take it, I couldn’t live with myself.” When he heard this, he knew they weren’t doing it for recognition. It isn’t only about teaching the kids. It’s about protecting them, he said.
The guardians were taught by Sgt. Hazellief, Sgt. Matt Hurst, Detectives Jose Garduno and Heath Hughes, and Sgt. Clif Gill.
Sgt. Hazellief presented each guardian with a challenge coin, which, he explained, represents unity. These were designed specifically for the sheriff’s office and have to be earned. On the front are the words “scholar,” “guardian,” “mentor,” ‘‘learn,” “protect” and “guide,” and in the center is the sheriff’s star. On the back of the coin is the eternal flame and the words, “Those who know do, and those who understand teach.” The coins were designed before the Guardian program was even thought of, he said.
One of the guardians said, “You created something in me I didn’t even know was there.”
One guardian’s favorite part of training was precision pistol because it honed skills and proved she could do it.
Another appreciated the legal portion of the training because it taught case law and laws surrounding law enforcement in general. One guardian thought the hardest part was learning not to be self-critical.
One of the guardians described the whole group of graduates as mama and papa bears who want to protect the cubs.
All the guardians were very appreciative of the instructors. One said, “I can’t say enough about the guys who taught us. We come from different backgrounds. We surprised them, though.”
Superintendent Kenworthy said, “It’s nice to have people on staff willing to volunteer. The number of hours they put in beyond the workday signifies their mission to keep kids safe. This is the one training you hope you never use.”