Maybe there were initial communication issues, as Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton acknowledged during a Monday meeting of the Gulf County School Board.
But, Norton added, the district and Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison are “100 percent on the same page as far as Guardian,” Norton added, alluding to the statewide program that would allow the arming of select school personnel.
During a meeting last month, the School Board voted to participate in the state Guardian program, reversing course from a year ago.
Any Guardian may only use that weapon to prevent an active-shooter situation.
The district became the 31st out of 67 in Florida to join Guardian.
“I am glad to see the direction we are going,” said board chair Brooke Wooten.
Harrison said his priority, as it was last year, was the maintaining the School Resource Officer (SRO) program, the expansion of which will remain intact this school year, with an officer in each school.
“That’s always been my concern,” Harrison said. “They want the SROs there. It has made a difference.”
Last year, the decision on joining Guardian was ultimately left with each county sheriff; language was changed this past legislative session to leave the final decision to local school boards.
“The Guardian program is wonderful,” said board member Ruby Knox. “But it is important students know what to do and follow the rules.”
Harrison will be charged with providing the 144 hours of training any Guardian applicant must complete, as well as background and psychological testing.
The SO is also responsible for any action taken by a Guardian.
Given the extensive training before a Guardian can be in a school armed combined with the district joining the program during summer, it is unclear how many Guardians might be trained for the coming school year, Harrison said, but likely not many.
“We are in the Guardian program and that adds another layer of security,” Harrison said. “There are some good things about it. I wanted to make the SROs the priority and the district has agreed every step of the way.
“And, mental health is really a majority of the bill. They want to make sure we are addressing mental health issues in our students.”
Norton agreed that the mental health component was the “most important” one in sweeping bill on school safety passed by the Florida Legislature in the wake of last February’s mass shooting at Parkland High School.
Norton added that the bill also contained funding for school hardening.
The district began that process last year with improvements to school cameras and reducing to one the public access point at each school.
Assistant Superintendent Duane McFarland has been tasked with leading the district’s safety programs and has spent considerable time this summer assessing technologies and other methods to options to “harden” schools.
“School safety is the most important issue we are tasked with, let’s be honest about it,” Norton said. “Education is paramount, but ensuring that education is taking place in a safe environment has become as important.”
New WES position
Due to the influx of households to the north end of the county following Hurricane Michael, kindergarten registration is up at Wewahitchka Elementary, with 69 students already enrolled and the school year more than month away.
That puts the school out of compliance with class-size requirements with the current classrooms.
The board approved a new kindergarten classroom for WES.
“They were a beneficiary, on a small scale, of Hurricane Michael,” Norton said.
WHS football field
The hope is that work on the Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School football field, including replacing the lights, will be finished in time for the start of football season.
That work is just one in a number of construction projects taking place at both ends of the county as the district tries to completely bounce back, infrastructure-wise, from Michael.