The Gulf County School Board voted last week to participate in the state’s controversial Guardian Program, which allows select school personnel to carry a concealed firearm on campus.

After a lengthy closed-door executive session, the board voted 3-1 to participate in the program, a reversal from last year when the board unanimously voted not to participate in the first year of the Guardian Program.

Board member Cindy Belin cast the lone dissenting vote; the Group 4 seat remains vacant after the death of Billy Quinn, Jr., whose replacement must be appointed by the governor.

Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton had lobbied the board last year and this to participate in the program.

“Student safety continues to be a top priority for Gulf District Schools,” Norton said in a press release.

The district becomes the 31st in Florida to participate in the program.

The Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program was put in place last spring by the Florida Legislature as part of a school safety package passed in the days following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The program allows certain employees to become qualified and trained to carry guns on school campuses; in particular that includes ROTC instructors, retired law enforcement or military veterans.

The act was not intended to arm classroom teachers but to put qualified individuals on school campuses that would be trained to respond to school shootings.

Those who qualify may only brandish their weapons in the event of a school shooting.

Norton said he would cooperate with local law enforcement to assign guardians for school sites.

Last year, in lieu of participating in the Guardian program, a Gulf County Sheriff’s deputy was assigned to each school site with a roving supervisor.

“Implementing the program in no way negates the role local law enforcement would play in the event of a school shooting, or their proven dependability and devotion to county schools,” Norton said.

However, a state commission on public safety found that having guardians in schools was the best way to ensure highly-trained personnel are place to respond immediately to a school shooting, according to the district press release.

Sheriff Mike Harrison was involved in the school board’s discussions last year pertaining to participation in the Guardian program and was surprised to learn the following day that the school board had taken action.

“We will work with them every way we can,” Harrison said. “Seeing that we will be involved in the program, I am surprised I was not invited to the meeting.”

Vetting volunteers, and this year and last the district has had at least a handful, will include an interview, background check, drug screening, psychological evaluation and an in-depth discussion with the individual.

Those selected would have to undergo 144 hours of training, including firearms training, shooting simulations, active-shooter simulations and defensive tactics.

The guardians would in effect become deputized by the Sheriff’s Office.

Those participating would receive a one-time $500 stipend for the purchase of a gun.

Guardians would be permitted to carry a concealed sidearm on campus and to and from school.

Their lone authority would be to respond with deadly force to “prevent or abate an active assailant incident on school premises,” according to the law.