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Citrus County School Guardian A. Ramos' eyes are fixed on a doorway as he clears a hallway as well as several classrooms during an active-shooter drill at Lecanto High School last week. While Ramos' gun isn't a lethal firearm it does shoot simulated rounds that fire paintball projectiles.

THE ISSUE: Guardian program

OUR OPINION: A necessary layer of added protection

Since the horrific murder of students at Columbine High School 20 years ago, recurring mass shootings by armed sociopaths have transformed the open campuses of our nation’s schools into guarded enclaves.

This new normal came to Florida on Valentine’s Day last year when an armed sociopath killed 17 and injured 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

In response, state lawmakers quickly passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. Included among the school safety initiatives was the creation of the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program named after the coach who sacrificed his life shielding students from gunfire.

The armed guardians’ main responsibility is “to prevent or abate an active assailant incident on school premises.” While the size and scope of the programs vary by district, state-mandated requirements for school guardians include background screening, 144 hours of firearms instruction, shooter scenarios and diversity training conducted by sheriff’s office instructors.

With the beginning of the school year, our school district and at least 32 other of the state’s 67 districts have voluntarily opted to field guardian programs. Opposing the arming of teachers, local school officials chose to add a necessary layer of student protection by employing eight armed guardians under the leadership of a seasoned law enforcement professional — retired Citrus County undersheriff Buddy Grant.

The district’s thoughtful foresight, meticulous planning and close training coordination with the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) has put in place a model program for the new school year that affords a necessary layer of added protection for student safety.

Hired from a pool of 40 applicants, the eight guardians have a strong military, law enforcement, and/or corrections background with a combined 183 years of experience. Unlike some other school districts, Citrus County’s guardians will wear a gun belt, khaki pants and a bright-red shirt with the word “Guardian” on both sides so they can be easily identified by deputies, students and staff.

The training of the district’s guardians has been wisely conducted by the same instructors who train CCSO deputies to assure the same response tactics are practiced and employed. Going above and beyond the mandated training, the district is also planning enhancement training that includes: familiarization with school layouts; first-aid, CPR and AED training; de-escalation training; certification of active-shooter response trainers; tactical medic training by Citrus County Fire Rescue; and guardian/deputy joint active-shooter response exercises.

Although school security is not absolute in today’s new normal, the district’s model armed guardian program is a significant safety enhancement for deterring and responding to any potential threat.

As such, given the past strained relationship between the sheriff and local school officials, the mutual cooperation exhibited during the guardian training is not only refreshing, but also essential to sustaining a strong partnership for protecting our students.

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