TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — After a majority of voters in Hernando County approved an increase in property taxes to fund school initiatives, the Hernando County School District will be putting those dollars to work by increasing school safety with a School Safety Guardian program.

Guardians will work alongside School Resource Officers from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office who are contracted and paid for by the school district.

“When you consider a campus of 50 or 60 acres, having two trained individuals helping to secure the school is certainly a better ratio,” said the district’s Director of Safe Schools, Jill Renihan, in her presentation at the board workshop. “The more good guys, the better.” Renihan’s comments were published by the district on Thursday.

The Hernando initiative itself is part of the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian program, part of a 2018 Florida school safety effort created by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

Program to defend inspired by Stoneman Douglas coach

The law was passed in response to the tragic killing of 17 students and staff at the Parkland high school by Nikolas Cruz, a former student.

Feis was the coach at Stoneman Douglas High who shielded students from Cruz’s attack with his body, and later died from his injuries.

In 2020, while Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed portions of the state budget proposal to deal with the economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as $20 million for the Job Growth Grant Fund and another $41.5 million was cut from the Guardian program’s budget, among many others.

Now in 2021 and with 18 months of COVID-19 behind the state, DeSantis said in Niceville yesterday that the strong economic showing in Florida during the pandemic meant he did not have to make the same cuts to the budget. He said this year that the state was able to award the various Job Growth Grant Funds delivered in multiple appearances this week.

Paid to protect

According to publications by the Hernando County School District, training for the first guardians will start and they’ll be in high schools by March 2022.

In response to questions by 8 On Your Side, a representative for the school district said it will start with five guardians, then expand the program for the 2022-2023 school year.

“Guardian salaries will come from the Mental Health & School Safety category of the recent voter-approved millage referendum. A grant from the Florida Department of Education will cover the cost of equipment and training,” according to a release by the school district.

Initial grants for the program will cover “all allowable startup costs and retraining costs as long as funding is available.” Clarifying further, a district spokesperson told WFLA that the sheriff’s office is also eligible to reapply for reimbursement for the costs of training and equipment each year.

What makes a guardian?

Still, compared to SROs, Guardians are a little different, in terms of responsibilities and what they can do.

There are currently 23 SROs, two relief SROs and two sergeants in Hernando County, according to the school district. A lieutenant that oversees the SROs is paid by the sheriff’s office. One SRO is assigned to each school.

SROs are sworn law enforcement officers, meaning they have the power to make arrests.

Guardians will be trained by the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, and will be expected to pass the state-mandated training requirements, 144 hours of specialized training from the sheriff’s office, as well as maintain a State of Florida Guardian Certification. They’ll also have to pass background checks, drug tests and psychological evaluations.

The 144 hours of training includes 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training, and 12 hours of diversity training, according to the school district.

The hiring process is expected to begin on Oct. 26, pending board approval. Funding for the program will come from multiple sources, on a recurring basis.

Guardians are not sworn officers and will not be able to make arrests. Guardians will be able to detain individuals and will be employees of the school district. Both guardians and SROs will be armed with handguns, according to the school district. However, the district would not identify make or model for security reasons.

Enforcement policies that the guardians will be providing are to be brought forward through a rule-making process before the guardians arrive on campuses in March. The rules have not yet been decided.

The five guardians employed in Hernando County will be expected to provide surveillance and be visible while on campus, but the types of equipment used for observation will not be disclosed, also for security reasons, according to a district spokesperson.

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