Should an armed intruder ever get onto the campus of Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, they will not have a fair fight on their hands. They, according to Principal Bill Jones, will be met with swift, overwhelming and deadly force by guards carrying semi-automatic rifles.
Jones isn’t trying to hide the charter school’s security plan. He just hopes his warning acts as a deterrent.
“If someone walks onto this campus, they’re going to be shot and killed,” Jones said. “We’re not going to talk with them. We’re not going to negotiate. We are going to put them down, as quickly as possible.”
Since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was enacted last year after the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 students and teachers in Parkland, every public school in Florida is required to have armed security on campus.
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Many campuses already had school resource officers, certified lawmen assigned to schools by their respective local agency. The new law created the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, allowing for an alternative to SROs.
Manatee School for the Arts, which has more leeway than regular public schools, has taken a more aggressive approach to the guardian program, hiring only military veterans with combat experience and arming them with Glock handguns and Kel-Tec RDB 17-inch semi-automatic long-guns, both of which they carry at all times. The rifle is a bullpup, a configuration that allows for a shorter firearm with a long barrel, and uses .223 caliber ammunition, same as an AR-15.
“There’s no guarantee that the guardian’s going to be where he’s needed at the time, but you do your best,” Jones said. “And certainly, the long gun gives you a better range.”
Range was a major part of the decision process in arming their guardians with rifles. A guardian armed only with a 9 mm handgun would not be able to neutralize an intruder from across the cafeteria, for example, Jones explained.
Despite hating the association the quote, “When seconds count, police are minutes away,” has with the National Rifle Association, Jones says it is the reality of the situation. Parkland taught the importance of a swift response when there is a shooter on campus.
“If someone comes in with a handgun, great, than we have a tremendous advantage and we will use that advantage,” Jones said.
The charter school did its research and discussed with law enforcement in great detail every step of its decision making, Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler said. While the school’s approach may be “outside of the box” and “extraordinary,” nothing in the law prohibits it, according to the chief.
“We want our SROs and guardians to be as well prepared as possible if, God forbid, the worst happens,” Tyler said. “This was not a capricious decision.”
A rifle has greater range and stopping power, Tyler agreed, and guardians and school officers should be as “well-equipped, if not better” than any potential threat they would be up against.
Many school resource officers assigned to campuses by local law agencies are armed with rifles, but they do not carry them. Instead, they are kept secured in racks built into their vehicles.
Along with the extra firepower, guardians at Manatee School for the Arts wear a higher level of body armor than what officers regularly wear, comparable to what is worn in combat.
The administration was also very particular in the ammunition used with the long guns to avoid over-penetration. Officials selected a shell designed for hunting that can go through basic body armor an intruder might be wearing. But it won’t go through the intruder, lessening the risk to students and staff.
With a population of 2,100 students, Manatee School for the Arts has hired two guardians as mandated by the new state statute. The first guardian, a 15-year U.S. Army veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, already patrols the campus. The second guardian is currently undergoing required training by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
“People might think twice, particularly in our case, if you pull up and see a guy who is carrying a full long gun,” Jones said. “If someone tried to come on campus with a weapon, before we had our guardian program, there really is nothing much to stop that.”
But Tyler said he will not presume it will make someone think twice. Ultimately, it’s a decision that schools and administration need to make based on their comfort level, he concluded.
The charter school also went above the requirements of the law in ensuring that it’s guardians are military veterans with combat experience.
During the Parkland shooting, Broward sheriff’s deputies, including the school resource officer, sat outside as shots were still being fired.
“If you’re ever going to have an event on campus, I don’t want it to be the first time they’ve been shot at,” Jones said. “I don’t want them trying to figure who they are and how they are going to respond. That’s a life-changing experience and these folks, I don’t want this to be the first time they’ve asked themselves, ‘What am I going to do.’”
The charter school has worked on hardening its campus, including adding more and higher perimeter fencing, going from six feet tall to eight feet. The school has also hired a mental health counselor, and time has been spent talking to students about security during various classes, according to Jones.
But the school is not done yet.
Visitors to campus will soon have to go through a guard gate before getting onto campus. The school is already in the process of accepting bids to build the guard house. Additional gates are also being added to the campus to restrict access.
Moving forward, Jones said he is not comfortable with the idea of arming all teachers.
“There are some, I’d feel very comfortable with,” Jones said referring to teachers who are military veterans. “But in general, I’d be a little bit hesitant to have an awful lot of people just walking around with a concealed weapon.”