The sheriff’s office in Polk County, Florida, is training a troupe of armed “guardians,” or regular civilians, to protect students during the upcoming school year—a program that some critics find troubling.
“Formal officers trained to specific standards should be the law enforcement presence in schools if there’s going to be one,” Secure Schools Alliance Executive Director Robert Boyd told The Daily Beast. “You don’t just take anybody and put them in a school, particularly with a firearm.”
One of the masterminds behind the program, Sheriff Grady Judd, is an unabashed gun-rights supporter—and an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, among other hot-button issues. He was one of 12 sheriffs to meet with President Donald Trump, whom he’s called the “best ally” of law enforcement, in February.
Judd insists the civilian guardians will be well-trained—and more cost-effective than school resource officers. Potential guardians must complete background checks, psychological evaluations, and drug tests during the training process, according to the Polk County’s Sheriff Office. Over 500 people applied for the program, but only 150 people made it to the training portion, Judd told News 6.
“The guardian receives 25 percent more firearms training than a certified police officer in the state of Florida and has to qualify five points higher than a certified police officer,” Judd told the outlet.
The guardians will “provide security to our campuses, conduct necessary drills, oversee crime prevention initiatives and programs with students, conduct surveillance and other security-related tasks,” a Polk County Sheriff’s Office spokesman told News 6.
Participants of the program, which is helmed by instructors who train deputies and SWAT team members, are required to complete 144 hours of “intensive tactical training.” Only 91 people will graduate and become an official guardian in July.
Those who make the cut will be paid $30,000 yearly, with most of their salaries being covered by the $67 million set aside to to train armed school resource officers and other staff members as part of a law passed in March after the Parkland high school shooting.
“When we get the 911 call [that] there’s an active shooter on campus, the destruction is already underway, that’s why you have to have school guardians on the campus,” Judd told News 6.
The Polk County sheriff, a recent NRA TV guest, has made several provocative, headline making statements about guns—and encouraged residents to arm themselves for self-defense. In 2017, he told his community, “If you’re not afraid of a gun, get one... And if you need to shoot somebody, shoot them a lot,” according to Fox 35.
When a SWAT team shot at a suspect 100 times after he killed a sheriff and a K-9 dog in 2006, Judd quipped, “That’s all the bullets we had, or we would have shot him more,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Polk County Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd told The Daily Beast that the school board and the sheriff’s office worked together to create the program.
“The guardian program was created to make sure we have someone in our schools—mainly elementary schools—that don’t currently have school resource officers,” Byrd said. None of the teachers in the school district will be armed, she added.
Byrd admitted that Polk County School Districts faced some pushback from parents. “At the end of the day, they’re sending their children, and we want to make sure we put someone there for the safety of those students,” she said.