OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County School Board is scheduled to take a final vote on adding teachers to the guardian program, the 2019-20 budget and other issues at their upcoming Sept. 10 meeting.
Earlier this year Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that allows school districts to expand the school guardian program to permit classroom teachers to carry firearms; previously, only non-instructional staff were eligible to join the program.
The Okeechobee School District had already given non-instructional staff at schools the go-ahead to sign up for the guardian program in 2018. But following the recently passed expansion to the program, school board members asked the district to prepare a survey to gauge community interest in Okeechobee teachers being allowed to carry firearms.
Results from the community survey showed respondents were in favor of the expansion.
Of the 879 people who voted in the survey, 62 percent wanted to expand the program to teachers while 38 percent were not in favor.
The majority of respondents to the survey were parents, followed by school district employees and community members. Students contributed the smallest share of responses to the survey, but they were easily the most divided of all the groups.
Forty-seven percent of students said “yes” to allowing teachers to carry firearms while 53% said “no.” In contrast, parents had the highest percentage of any group approving the measure with 68% saying “yes” to allowing teachers in the guardian program.
At their Aug. 4 meeting the school board heard from a local parent who wanted to voice his support of the guardian program to board members directly.
“I have two kids in the school system, one in the sixth grade and one in the ninth grade,” said Okeechobee resident Adam Cohen. “Our politicians who write these laws feel like they are valuable enough to have armed guards; so do our judges who enforce the laws. Our kids are worth that same level of protection. I think the SROs (school resource officers) are awesome, but one person can’t secure a campus. SROs are excellent, but guardians are the next best thing we have. We moved here from Parkland. My daughter was in lockdown in the middle school while this murderer was running around. I wished the teachers there had a gun. I encourage you to continue what you’re doing. Okeechobee has done much more than Parkland has done to secure their schools. It’s night and day.”
To be eligible to join the guardian program, a teacher must already have a concealed carry permit. They’ll have to go through 132 hours of firearm safety by certified instructors, 80 hours of firearm instruction, 16 hours of precision pistol training, eight hours of instruction with a simulator, eight hours of active shooter scenario instruction, eight hours of instruction in defensive tactics and 12 hours instruction on legal issues. They must also pass a psychological evaluation, and an additional drug test along with random drug tests throughout the year. Guardians would have to complete ongoing training on at least an annual basis.
Based on the results from the community survey and previous school board member comments on the issue, it seems likely the expansion will be approved.
“We have to do what’s right by our community and not be concerned with what’s happening outside our community,” said member Malissa Morgan at one meeting. “This is our home; these are our children. I’m very proud of our board. As a former teacher, I would want the option to stand in front of my children and protect them. I wouldn’t want to stand there helpless.”
At the Sept. 10 meeting the school board will also approve the Okeechobee County School District’s 2019-20 tentative millage and budget.
The school board is set to approve a total millage rate of 6.087 for 2019-20, down from 6.359 last year. That millage is made up of a required local effort of 3.839, discretionary local effort of 0.748 and capital improvement effort of 1.500. The budget for the 2019-20 year will be $77,800,660.
The Okeechobee County School Board will meet at 6 p.m. on Sept. 10.