The Lake County School Board voted Monday night to allow eligible school administrators who volunteer and meet training requirements to carry guns on school campuses and serve as armed responders to active shooter incidents.
An informal poll found that 30 administrators are interested in participating in what is commonly referred to as the guardian program, short for the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program established in the aftermath of the deadly February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in south Florida. Teachers and other employees would be excluded from participation.
School Board Chairman Stephanie Luke along with board members Marc Dodd and Bill Mathias voted in support of the measure.
“Evil exists and we have an obligation to protect our kids,”Mathias said before the vote.
Luke agreed and added, “When I think of my son or daughter sitting in a classroom and the SRO (school resource officer) defense has gone down… there’s nothing I wouldn’t want anyone on that campus to have to keep my child safe.”
Board members Sandy Gamble and Kristi Burns, Ph.D., voted against the measure.
“I’m very concerned about the potential for unintended consequences,” Burns said.
Gamble raised similar concerns along with questions about liability. “I have mixed thoughts,” he said. “No matter what you do, you’re not going to make everybody happy. I’m not sure this is the right way.”
Superintendent Diane Kornegay recommended support of the program, noting that she would prefer to have a certified law enforcement officer in every school and will continue to work toward that goal. But the state didn’t provide enough funding and the district doesn’t have the money to have them in place by the beginning of the school year as required by law.
Kornegay has been meeting with local police departments, city managers and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office to try and find ways of sharing the cost, but many of those agencies are strapped for cash as well. Plus, law enforcement agencies are finding it difficult to hire enough officers to meet the growing demand as 67 school districts scamper to place officers before the new school year begins.
“This board was painted into a corner,” Dodd said. “The Legislature knew very well what they were doing. They made sure we would be forced into this position.”
Currently, the district has at least one officer or deputy in every middle and high school in Lake and none in elementary schools. To enhance student safety at every school, the new law gives districts three options: 1) use certified officers placed through local law enforcement agencies, 2) create a district police department staffed with certified officers, and 3) allow armed school personnel through the guardian program.
The Lake approach will be a combination of Options 1 and 3.
“Whether one agrees or disagrees with the guardian program, we must comply with the law and without the needed funding and the people to fill positions, we must consider every available option,” Kornegay said.
The board also voted unanimously to ask Lake County commissioners to place a referendum on the ballot this year for approval of a 0.75 mill ad valorem millage tax. If approved, the $16 million raised would go toward student safety through the hiring of more social workers, counselors and nurses, along with in-house alternative education programs, in-school suspension programs and some “school hardening” measures to make buildings and classrooms more secure.