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New calls for transparency as Florida shields information about disciplined school guardians

Florida claims incidents involving safe-school officers are exempt from public
The Impact Check Follow Up
Posted at 11:42 AM, Feb 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-16 11:42:23-05

TAMPA, Fla. — They are among Florida’s new wave of armed guards on campus, but as part of a recent investigation examining school guardians’ impact on shielding students from gun violence, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone discovered the state is also protecting guardians who do wrong.

“It raises the question of what are they hiding? Why wouldn't they want the public to know this information,” asked Michael Barfield, Director of Public Access with Florida’s Center for Government Accountability. The non-profit watchdog group advocates for government transparency.

“It doesn't seem right that citizens can't discover whether these standards are working to protect kids in our schools,” Barfield said.

Florida’s school guardian program was born out of the deadly Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting in 2018.

The controversial program gives districts the option to hire armed guards in place of law enforcement on a school campus. In 2019, lawmakers expanded the program to allow school staff, including teachers, to carry a gun on campus as a school guardian. Since the beginning of the program, state law has protected the identities of school guardians and other safe-school officers from public disclosure.

But while the state requires districts to report to them whenever an officer or guardian is disciplined or fires a gun outside of training, basic details of those incidents are also being kept under wraps. According to Florida’s Department of Education (FDOE), about 100 of these reports have been filed to the department since 2020.

IMPACT CHECK FOLLOW-UP

Despite multiple requests for incident details, FDOE has refused to release those records to us, stating in an email that the records are “confidential” and “exempt” from public disclosure. A spokesperson from FDOE claimed the records are “an integral part of the plan to secure the physical school building.”

“The exemption for security plans does not apply to discipline of officers or school safety officers,” argued Barfield with the Center for Government Accountability. “It's been my experience that the security plans exemption is one that agencies assert when they can't figure out any reason that another exemption actually applies."

Most school districts we contacted separately also refused to release any details of problem guardians they’ve had to report to the state. A few districts even forwarded to us the emails they received from the state advising them not to release the reports to us.

Of the few school districts that did provide us with some details about guardians who they’ve disciplined, records showed some school guardians have faced discipline for serious issues.

In Hillsborough County, a guardian was terminated after being charged with sexual battery on a student. A few others lost their jobs in the district after leaving campus during their shifts. In Lake and Citrus Counties, school guardians have accidentally fired their guns or left them unattended.

Still, most districts refused to release any information to us about issues they’ve had to report to the state.

“If it was my decision, I would disclose it because I see no reason why that information can’t be disclosed,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Gualtieri also leads the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which first urged the state to adopt the school guardian program.

“Transparency is a good thing, in my view. That’s the way I operate,” he said.

“Parents need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly,” explained Ken Trump, an Ohio-based school safety expert, and consultant.

“They need to know what's working well and the success stories. They also need to know when you have some serious problem individuals with questionable backgrounds and individuals with questionable actions and behaviors,” Trump said.

But instead, the Sunshine State is keeping parents in the dark.

“We're going backwards instead of forward on transparency, and I don't understand it,” said Barfield.