In 2018, after the devastating school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, many schools rushed to prevent further attacks with plans to arm teachers or station police or private guards on campus. In Florida, new state legislation provides for schools to designate a safety specialist or “school guardian,” an armed employee trained by the local sheriff’s department to repel attacks.
This is a dystopian response to a problem that would be much easier addressed with strict gun laws, but some schools, like the Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, FL, have leaned in to the legislation.
Per the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Manatee has hired two former combat veterans to guard the campus, who will be equipped with body armor, sidearms, and semi-automatic rifles and stationed on campus each day for the express purpose of dissuading or defending against an active shooter.
From the Herald-Tribune:
Harold Verdecia, 39, was an infantryman in the U.S. Army, completing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been shot at, and he has fired back.
“That’s just the job,” he said.
Now he patrols the hallways of Manatee School for the Arts, strapped with a Kel-Tec “Bullpup” rifle and a Glock 19X. Verdecia isn’t there to get to know the kids, break up fights or do the typical community-policing that school resource officers typically do, said MSA Principal Bill Jones.
Verdecia has one job: Stop an active shooter.
It’s surreal to hear Verdecia’s job described in such direct terms—he’s an adult in a school environment who is discouraged from forming relationships with the people he’s protecting. And experts are already extremely skeptical that Manatee is making the right decision, for a variety of reasons.
The decision to patrol with long guns is “very unusual,” said Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, which has performed security assessments at dozens of public school systems throughout Florida, including three of the state’s largest school districts.
Mr. Dorn said he was not aware of any school guards in the United States who openly carry long guns, though it is not unusual in some areas overseas.
“It’s not something that we typically advise our clients to do for a variety of reasons,” he added, in part because someone might knock out the officer and take the weapon, and it’s more difficult to subdue and handcuff an assailant while carrying a long gun.
The Herald-Tribune notes that Verdecia has completed a 144-hour training course run by the sheriff’s department, and his status as a combat veteran means that he’s assumedly better equipped than a normal teacher to handle the reality of a firefight. The Times reports that he’s been on the job for a few months, and another combat veteran is finishing training and will join him on campus soon.
But that just makes this more surreal. A firefight in a school should not be something that a well-regulated and safe society has to actively plan for; we should have gun laws and mental health policies in place that stop mass shootings before body armor and “explosive rounds”—which Verdecia’s gun is loaded with, according to the Herald-Tribune.
In a video shot by the Herald-Tribune, Verdecia notes that he walks up to nine miles a day patrolling the campus, one heavily armed man responsible for the lives of 2,000 students, patrolling their halls with a weapon functionally identical to the weapon of choice for most mass shooters.
“You don’t walk around with an assault rifle strapped to your chest in a school. That is not the normal policy of police agencies,” said Walt Zalisko, a retired police chief who now owns a Daytona Beach-based global investigative group and police management consulting business.
Zalisko said it is best practice to keep rifles locked up within a police car or in a secure location, and he said guardians or school resource officers are more effective when they are able to regularly engage with students, rather than viewing their job as solely stopping a mass shooter.
“His job is to protect the kids, and he can do that with a handgun, but it is also to form positive relationships,” Zalisko said. “Develop information on who may have drugs or weapons. There is a lot involved.”
In the Herald-Tribune video, Verdecia admits that “people aren’t used to seeing guns in schools.” Is that such a bad thing?