A New York Times' story about the guardians at Manatee School For the Arts in Palmetto had locals buzzing with conversation on social media pages for days.
It was the kind of gun they were carry that grabbed everyone’s attention. The photo depicted a guard at the school holding a long gun, a firearm that looks like a rifle but is much shorter.
“I would have used a short barrel rifle, but as a 501C3, our attorney led me through the maze of paperwork and everything we’d have to do to even qualify,” said principal and founder of the public charter school, Dr. Bill Jones.
Here’s what he ended up with:
“In our case, the Kel-Tec has a 17-inch barrel which maintains the accuracy you’re looking for and the kind of impact that you really want in those situations,” he said.
The situations he is referring to are school shootings.
The news about the long gun surfaced around the time of two other major news events: the one-year anniversary of the tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the introduction of another measure in the state legislature to arm teachers at Florida schools.
But Jones said he doesn’t understand why the guardian program at his school is getting so much attention now.
After all, he said, the state legislature had already decided there will be armed guardians at school. His administration chose to hire two veterans to patrol the school because of their combat experience and weapons knowledge.
Guardians undergo more than a hundred hours of training. The guardians at Manatee School for The Arts received additional firearms training from local law enforcement.
Twenty-five school districts are participating in the guardian program. The state Department of Education approved $9.3 million to fund the program. The agency reports $3,531,074.02 has been paid to participating sheriffs’ offices as of February.
For example, in Pinellas County schools, there are 83 security officers, 31 county police officers and 55 school resource officers this school year. That’s up from 21 county police officers and 34 SROs a year earlier.
The law protects schools from disclosing the type of weapons guardians carry. Jones said most schools he talked to in his research have guards that carry a 9mm handgun.
The gun is just one tool the school uses as part of its security initiative. Other tools include video cameras, mental health counseling, and active shooter response training.
Jones chalks up the media attention about the guardians and their weapons to two things: divisive politics and ignorance about firearms.
“You have to get the emotion out of the conversation and say, ‘Look, these are tools,’” Jones said. “Guns are tools for people who use them for specific purposes. And once you’re able to do that, then you look at what kind of tool do you really need.”
He said he’s gotten some concerned emails from local groups in recent weeks telling him that such guns traumatize students and are militarizing schools.
Robin Williams lives in nearby Sarasota part-time but is registered to vote in Florida. She belongs to the Sarasota and Manatee chapter of Protect Our Public Schools, a group with those concerns.
“I personally would never work in a school with people being armed,” she said.
Williams taught in schools in the northeast U.S. for 30 years. She believes the push for more guns in schools is the agenda of gun lobbyists.
Marcie Bruner works in the school cafeteria at Manatee School For the Arts. She approves of the new guardians.
“It’s not even a distraction anymore. I think everybody has realized that this is just a program that is amazing that we’re doing here and again it’s here to protect our students and our staff,” she said.
Data show most mass shootings are committed with a handgun, not an assault rifle. Jones knows this too, but said he’d rather be prepared, even if the odds are low. The long gun gives the guardians a tactical advantage.
“I don’t ever want to be in a position, as rare as it’s gonna be, if something were to happen to have to say, ‘Well gosh, we were hoping it wouldn’t happen here,’” he said.