FORT WALTON BEACH — In years past when children returned to school after a summer vacation, they'd find their teachers armed with antibacterial wipes, whiteboard markers and other items essential to the classroom — not handguns.

However, Florida lawmakers passed a bill last session that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law May 8. It allows teachers for the first time in history to pack heat to improve safety at schools.

At least 32 of the state's 67 school boards have accepted the Legislature's offer and voted to implement the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which lets teachers who complete local sheriff’s office's training earn certification to bring firearms to schools.

All the school boards from Escambia to Bay counties, with the exception of Santa Rosa, have approved the guardian program.

The Okaloosa County School Board is one of the latest in Florida to give thumbs up to the guardian program at a rough-and-tumble meeting May 28.

Walton County began advertising in May to hire five guardians. But Charlie Morse, the school distdrict's school safety specialist, is quick to add, “We’re not looking for teachers.”

One of the deadliest school shootings in United States history happened Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Florida, when former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Nikolas Cruz activated a fire alarm and then used an AR-15 rifle to mow down 17 students and staff and injure another 17. The 19-year-old, who'd been expelled for behavioral problems, blended in with fleeing students and left the school, but authorities eventually arrested Cruz in a nearby Coral Springs neighborhood.

The massacre sparked national outrage about school shootings that have become more and more common during the past two decades. Six school shootings occurred in 1999, including the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two student shooters gunned down a dozen of their fellow students and a teacher. Meanwhile, 37 school shootings happened in 2018 alone.

A year ago, fed-up Florida lawmakers decided to do something about it. They passed school safety reforms March 9, 2018, just three weeks after the Parkland high school massacre. It created the guardian program but didn't go so far as to call for arming teachers.

It also established the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which released its 458-page report on the last day of 2018.

The commission did recommend arming school teachers.

Made up of 15 people, including law enforcement officers, educators, mental health experts, elected officials and relatives of victims, only one father of a murdered student voted against allowing teachers to carry handguns.

 

Teachers and guns

State lawmakers this session adopted the commission’s recommendations and expanded the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. The state law is designed to increase school safety and prevent more school shootings. The additional measures take effect Oct. 1.

Other Parkland commission recommendations included: improving the reporting of school safety incidents; creating a standardized risk assessment process for dangerous students; developing new guidelines on school-based mental health; enhancing school surveillance technology to allow schools and law enforcement to get real-time access; placing a safe-school officer at each public school; and granting safe-school officers access to students’ educational and disciplinary records and school safety assessments.

The report also called for standards for locking doors from the inside, requirements for classrooms to have “hard corners” so students cannot be seen by people trying to look in, and requirements to make school districts create and enforce Code Red and emergency policies. It also sought mandated active-shooter training for all elementary, middle and high school students starting in August, and funding for the state Department of Education to use in addressing identified safety needs.

In addition, the report said that schools should face consequences from the state if they fail to comply with safety standards.

The concept of giving guns to teachers to protect school children sparked heated debates among lawmakers and remains controversial. A survey conducted by the Florida Atlantic University Business and Economics Polling Initiative in February, at the height of debate at the state Capitol, found 51 percent of voters opposed the idea while 37 percent favored it.

Janet Walker holds a concealed weapons permit in Florida. But that doesn’t mean the former teacher, retired after 30 years on the job, would want to carry a deadly weapon around schoolchildren.

“I’m very comfortable with a gun,” said Walker, who taught kindergarten at Okaloosa County's Longwood Elementary School. “Whoever has a gun in the schools has to be strong. It’s too bad we have to go through this.”

Santa Rosa County School Board Chairwoman Carol Boston wants the only people armed in the classroom when students return to class Aug. 12 to be school resource officers.

“At this point, we’re not looking to arm teachers,” Boston said. “My sense is teachers are not for it. They have so much to do every day with their students. We need to allow them to educate students and take care of them in that way.”

At an intense and emotional Okaloosa County School Board meeting May 28, people argued passionately for and against the guardian program.

One of those who spoke in support of teachers carrying firearms was Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley. A lawman for 30 years, Ashley participated on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.

“It would be my goal and my recommendation that every teacher and staff member who’s capable be armed,” Ashley said. “You can run, you can hide or you can fight, and if you have nothing to fight with, you take that option off of the table.”

Bryan Phillipson, a Mary Esther resident with five grandchildren in local schools, agreed with Ashley at the School Board meeting.

“I’m glad someone is finally trying to do something, actually taking action against these mass killers,” Phillipson said. “Thank you for considering this. I encourage you to support arming the willing and arming the brave.”

However, Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson said if his county's School Board decides in the future to implement a guardian program, he would prefer someone with military experience.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to carte blanche give everybody a gun,” Johnson said. “Teachers want to help people. They don’t want to kill people. A football coach who was in the Marines and wants to carry a gun, I’m for that. But a history teacher who has never owned a gun or handled a gun, I’m not for that.”

Walton County’s Morse said its guardians will be more like security guards. Besides hiring them, he said Walton has followed a “circles of safety” plan extending from classrooms, to the schools, and then to the perimeter of the school grounds.

“We’re looking at guardians who strictly do security,” Morse said. “We have got to have safe learning environments for learning to occur.”

 

Mental health requirements

Florida’s guardian program might offer some comfort to educators, parents and students because it requires a psychological evaluation. However, it fails to require ongoing psychological evaluations for guardian program participants.

This safeguard ideally prevents putting someone with a mental disorder into local schools with a gun.

One in four adults, or about 58 million Americans, experience a mental disorder during any given year, the National Institute of Health reported. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Among children, one in 10 has a serious mental or emotional disorder, the health institute found.

Melissa Larkin-Skinner served on the Parkland Commission recommended mental health care for those who volunteer for the guardian program and for troubled students. The Centerstone Florida CEO has more than 25 years of experience with mental health and addictions treatment programs, including hospital, outpatient, crisis, community-based, forensic and child welfare services.

Is the one-time psychological evaluation guaranteed to eliminate anyone with mental illness from being permitted to carry a weapon?

“I don’t think anything is foolproof,” Larkin-Skinner said. “Anytime I have the inclination to say something is foolproof, all I have to do is think about the Titanic. It is a really good step but I think we can do more.”

Many opponents of sending teachers into schools with handguns, especially parents and students, question whether the guardians will remain cool, calm and collected.

Two students who attended the heated Okaloosa County School Board’s adoption of the controversial Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program said they worried it would create even more school violence.

Roxanne Daniel, a Fort Walton Beach High School graduate, organized last year’s “March for our Lives” event.

“Please, for the sake of my peers and the students of Okaloosa County, recognize that the risk of adding to the victims of gun violence in our region outweighs” implementing the guardian program, Roxanne told board members.

Helena Hunter, who attends Destin Middle School, questioned whether teachers carrying handguns would make her and her friends safer.

“It’s just not really safe for the students because they can’t get (the weapon),” Helena said at the crowded meeting. “Also for the parents, because if they know the teachers who are teaching their kids have a gun, it doesn’t really seem safe.”

Santa Rosa mental health case

Recently, a teacher with a history of mental problems employed by the Santa Rosa County School District stabbed his parents multiple times.

Erick Reitz was hired Aug. 9, 2018, at Gulf Breeze High School as a paraprofessional in its exceptional student program. A Gulf Breeze graduate and wrestler, he also was an assistant wrestling coach.

Before joining the high school, the 29-year-old earned an honorable discharge from the Air Force and worked for more than two years at the Niceville Police Department. His three job references all raved about him, including current Niceville police Officer Stephen Usry. Reitz seemed like an ideal candidate for the guardian program.

On April 30, however, Reitz “snapped.” He stabbed his mother and father multiple times at a Gulf Breeze home where they all lived. After he refused a demand by his father, Brady, to drop the knife, the father shot his troubled son to death. The Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office emergency dispatcher reported hearing multiple gunshots.

Nothing in Reitz’ 25-page job application or résumé indicated to the high school or school district that six months before Reitz was killed the Niceville Police Department released him for psychological issues and that he'd been Baker Acted twice and placed on the Brady/Giglo list by the First Judicial Circuit's State Attorney's Office. The list indicates an officer cannot be relied upon to truthfully testify in court.

Larkin-Skinner said she hopes mental disorders suffered by a person like Reitz would be uncovered during the psychological evaluation before the candidate for certification receives the go-ahead from the Sheriff's Office to become a guardian.

“I would expect and hope someone like that would be caught up front,” she said. “(The evaluation) is designed to catch things that might send up red flags.”

For now, the state law passed to protect schools and school children stands. However, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission held a two-day meeting last week and will meet again in August. The commission has until 2023 to meet and make other proposals to the Florida Legislature.

Meanwhile, Daniel Hahn wishes for a few more things to improve school safety, which he takes very seriously. The Santa Rosa County School District's safety director conducted “listening sessions” with high school and eighth grade students throughout the year.

His wish list? Tons of money for more counselors, more school resource officers and moats.