BRADENTON — With the first day of school on the horizon, Manatee County's school resource officers last were training to keep students safe in the event of an active shooter.
At Manatee Technical Institute's West Campus, about a dozen school resource officers participated in tactical training with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office SWAT team.
It was part of the school resource officers' regular law enforcement curriculum and designed to simulate a school shooting.
"If we hear gunshots, we go to the bad guy. Go to the threat and stop it immediately," said Lt. Julio Jordan with the sheriff's office.
Jordan, who is head of the school resource officer unit, said they look forward to the two weeks before school starts each summer. They train with the SWAT team and get a refresher on how to best defend schools. While he hopes they will never have to use any of the tactics they learn, he said it's important to be prepared.
"The idea is not to use it, the idea is to be prepared and deter the bad guys from ever thinking about trying to come into Manatee County and go to one of our schools," he said.
This is why "training is paramount," said Randy Warren, sheriff's office's public information officer. Tuesday's session was part of a number of trainings school resource officers will undergo before class starts, Warren said.
In addition to the sheriff's office school resource officers, the School District of Manatee County's guardian program has also worked to protect schools since its implementation in 2018 — when a gunman killed 14 students and three staff members at a high school in Parkland. Shortly after, Florida passed a law requiring armed guards in every public school.
School guardians are armed security officers with no law enforcement authority who are required to finish 144 hours of training through the sheriff's office. That includes firearms instruction, diversity training and active-shooter preparation, according to previous Bradenton Herald reporting.
Many of the guardians have prior experience in law enforcement or the military.
The county has around 47 guardians, plus the supervisors, and 18 school resource officers, as well as two sergeants and one lieutenant, Jordan said.
'A hard balance'
Despite all the preparing to deter "bad guys," Jordan said it is important for school to still feel like school.
"The idea is to keep it as open and as friendly as we can for our kids but make it as hard as a target for anybody who thinks they can come into our county," Jordan said. "It's a hard balance, and that's something we always talk with the school administrators about because we want the kids to feel free to go about... just like it's school and not like it's jail."
That's one reason the use of school resource officers has been criticized across the country. Studies and media reports have shown more law enforcement officers in schools leads to more students being arrested for minor offenses, part of what's called the school-to-prison pipeline. Critics say the money could be better used for mental health counselors and other support staff for students.
As school shootings have increased, so has the hiring of security personnel. Over 50% of U.S. schools had armed security as of the 2019-20 school year, federal data shows.
Their effectiveness in preventing or stopping shootings has also been questioned. One study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at school shootings from 1980 to 2019 found that having an armed officer on campus made no difference in the outcome of a school shooting. Most of the shooters were students and actively suicidal, so the presence of an armed officer "may be an incentive rather than a deterrent."
Recently in Florida, school resource officer Scot Peterson was found not guilty on criminal charges after being accused of intentionally not doing enough to stop the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. On Friday, the shooting was reenacted as part of a civil lawsuit between Peterson and the victims' families.
A 2020 study by the University of Florida showed that since the 2018 law was passed, there have been "increases in the number of behavioral incidents reported to the state, the number of such incidents reported to law enforcement, and student arrests."
School resource officers also have been controversial in Manatee County.
In 2022, a Manatee County school resource officer arrested a 12-year-old girl after she recorded a schoolyard fight on her phone. Sheriff Rick Wells told the Bradenton Herald that the student did not break any laws by recording the fight, and deputy was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
For some parents, having a school resource officer or guardian makes all the difference when it comes to making them feel like their children are safe.
That's the case for Deputy Stephen Filer, who works as a resource officer at a middle school while also having two children who are middle school-age.
He said diligent training is what he'd want from anyone tasked with protecting his kids.
"If my kids are going to my school, I'd want a guardian or SRO there to be able to provide the best skills and training that he has in order to make sure they're safe. So I'm gonna treat other people's children the way I would want somebody to treat my kids," Filer said.
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