LABELLE — Residents of Hendry and Glades counties voiced their opinions on the Guardian Program at the School Safety Forum on Monday, April 9, at LaBelle High School.
Ramiro Rodriguez, head of the Hendry County Recreation Department, agreed with protecting schools but said there are other ways besides using guns. He suggested that teachers, administrators and staff carry radios. “Communication is the best thing you can do,” said Rodriguez. “A thousand eyes are better than four deputies with guns.”
Gary Zielicke, a retired law enforcement officer, encountered an active shooter in Wisconsin on April 1, 1998. Mr. Zielicke said that a 14-year-old student, who scored poorly on a test, took his dad’s three hunting guns and 800 rounds of ammunition to school. “It took me three and a half minutes to get to the school,” said Zielicke, “and the shooter had already entered the school, shot windows and exited the school.” He told Hendry Sheriff Steve Whidden that he is “100 percent behind the Guardian Program.”
Hugo Vargas, a parent of three students attending LaBelle High School, said he is “completely for the program.”
Another person in attendance said, “Personally, I’m not for the program.” But he added that there should be protection in schools. “I believe there should be police officers or trained security whose sole job is to protect the kids.”
Laura Germino, mother of a LaBelle High School student, said that arming anyone, except for law enforcement, in schools is not safe. She said she would rather see more school resource officers in the schools. “I feel allowing someone, who is not law enforcement, to carry a concealed weapon is not safe.”
Mike Kemp, an employee of Hendry County schools for over 15 years, said that he’s undecided whether to support the program. He said there are a lot of school districts that are small and on a tight budget in Florida. Mr. Kemp asked what other districts are doing to protect themselves. “Are there avenues other than the Guardian Program to protect the students, staff and children that we all care about?”
Ken Mayo, a soldier and fifth-grade math teacher at West Glades Elementary, said he supports the Guardian Program. He said he will complete a training exercise to simulate engaging an enemy with an automatic weapon to protect our land in two weeks. “At what point did I leave campus and transition into solider?” Mr. Mayo asked. “Where does one stop and the other begin? I’m trained to do both. If you have the training, ability and desire to keep our children safe, then you have what it takes.”
Jamie Ledford, whose husband teaches at LaBelle High School and has a son in second grade, said she prays for the safety of her family when they go to school and work. “I don’t love the idea of having anyone additionally armed, but budgetary restrictions are what they are.” She said that if someone is highly trained to protect her family, she supports the program. “I trust the board is going to make the right decision,” said Mrs. Ledford. “I am putting the safety of my family in your hands.”
Kristen Walker, teacher and mother of three, said she’s concerned about a shooter on campus but said it would be even worse if an employee accidentally shot students. “I’m concerned, as a parent and a teacher, that we could have someone on campus whose shooting accuracy is less than 20 percent and we have 800 students on campus,” Mrs. Walker said. “The bullets are going to go somewhere.”
Brian Quinn said that the only person who can stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun. “I want a solider protecting my children,” he said.
Chris McAvoy, whose daughter is about to start kindergarten, said he is pro-gun and pro-Second Amendment. He said he wants to make sure there is more than “nothing” that can be done. “One thing I kept hearing out of police officers and the school board in Fort Lauderdale with the Parkland shooting was there is nothing we can do,” Mr. McAvoy said. He added that the writing was all over the wall with the kid at Parkland who shot many students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “The sheriff there said we can’t arrest him, we can’t charge with anything, he’s a minor,” Mr. McAvoy said, adding “I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Kevin Holland, a teacher at LaBelle Middle School, said, “I would die for your kids.” He said the Guardian Program isn’t an extra burden on teachers and staff; it takes some burden off of the employees.