Aaron Feis was not only a football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but an alumnus as well. MSD was his home, and the staff here were his friends. He cared about the students and always looked out for them. The safety of the school, and the students within its walls, was one of his main priorities.
The effectiveness of school safety policies in Broward County and the state of Florida were called into question after the shooting at MSD on Feb. 14, 2018. To address these concerns, the Florida Senate drafted the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, which was signed into law on March 9, 2018.
A portion of the law created the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which allows school employees to volunteer to carry a concealed firearm on campus during school hours. It is named after Feis, who lost his life while protecting others at MSD on Feb. 14, 2018.
Not just anyone can become a guardian. According to the public safety act, “a guardian must complete 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training, pass a psychological evaluation, submit to and pass drug tests, and complete certified diversity training.”
The role of a guardian is to protect the campus by preventing or holding off any intruder attacking or posing a threat. This is the only role they are assigned to perform, as they cannot take measures that are held under the jurisdictions of campus law enforcement.
Teachers that work in classrooms are prevented from participating. However, there is an exception to this rule: if a teacher is a part of a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, or was previously or currently serving in the military or law enforcement, he or she is permitted to volunteer for the program.
Ever since the bill was passed, many have debated whether allowing this kind of concealed weaponry in schools will protect students and faculty, or damage them instead.
“I’m against it because I feel like if you do want to protect the school or people you should enter the law enforcement instead of volunteering,” senior Victoria Miranda said. “If you want to volunteer you could do other ways that help not necessarily implementing that kind of action.”
Senior Trevor Hart has had his own experience using a firearm, and perceives 132 hours as enough time to properly equip guardians to take on the duties and responsibilities that come with handling a firearm.
“I feel like it would be effective in protecting schools because we would have more people to protect the school. Even if they have 132 hours, that’s still a significant amount of time to learn how to use a firearm,” Hart said. “They have to make sure they run through a lot of background checks and all that and make sure that they’re perfectly fine.”
Many of those participating in the guardian program are doing so because they feel a moral responsibility to protect their school community.
Influenced by the tragedy at MSD, Daniel Coley began working as a guardian at an elementary school in August to use his background in the coast guard in order to prevent harm to students and staff.
“It was something that I was more than willing to do in light of what happened, I mean children should never have to worry about going to school and whether they’re gonna go home that night or not,” Coley said in an interview with NBC Miami.
A county sheriff is not required to establish this program though, nor is it required for a school district to participate in it, even if it is available within their county. There are currently 25 school districts in Florida that have implemented the program within their schools for the 2018-2019 school year. The districts that are not participating in the guardian program are still required by state law to employ at least one armed police officer in their schools.
Initially in April 2018, the Broward County School Board decided they preferred placing only police officers as a source of protection in their schools, voting not to participate in the guardian program. A district press release stated, “Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) preference is to retain and expand the current School Resource Officer (SRO) program as part of the district’s overall safety and security efforts.”
Soon after, though, Broward County reversed their decision, deciding that it was more cost efficient to employ guardians, who are paid between $25,000 to $33,000, instead of police officers, who cost the district $46,200 each.
This change was made in order to provide armed protection for the 55 BCPS schools without an SRO and comply with state law. And so, Broward County acknowledged the need for, and ultimately decided to participate in the guardian program.
Elementary schools are those more likely to utilize the guardian program, especially in Broward County, because SROs are already present in most middle and high schools.
A total of $67 million in the Florida state education budget is dedicated to help districts fund the expenses associated with the guardian program, such as training equipment, tests that regard a volunteers eligibility for participation, firearms and additional equipment, uniforms, salaries, and benefits of employees. Only 9.3 million has been utilized by the districts participating in the program.
On Aug. 27, 2018, former Governor Rick Scott, requested the excess $58 million be reallocated so districts could hire more police officers instead. However, the Florida legislature rejected his proposal and the money remains with the guardian program.
As this is the first year of utilizing the program in schools, those involved will continue to gain insight into how it is implemented within schools and whether or not there are changes to be made.
Regardless, just as Feis dedicated his career towards to the students of MSD, guardians will continue to follow his example by protecting the students and staff of their own assigned schools.
This story was originally published in the April 2019 Eagle Eye print edition.