Voluntary program allows Polk school staff to carry guns at work

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Mass public shootings are on the rise, and schools are seen as vulnerable targets.  There’s now a renewed push in the Sunshine State to arm educators so they can protect students.

In Polk County, a partnership between the sheriff’s office and Southeastern University allows staff to bring guns to school.  It’s called the Sentinel program and it launched last summer.

Volunteers go through rigorous training that’s more intense then what deputies go through.  Eight staff members at the private university are now packing heat every day they come to work.

“It allows highly trained faculty and staff to be stationed literally all over the campus,” said Southeastern University's president, Dr. Kent Ingle.  “They are carrying for the sole purpose, can engage an active shooter should he or she come on campus and try to create destruction.”

They are locked and loaded, ready to protect everyone on campus in those critical minutes after the first bullet is fired and before law enforcement gets on scene.

“You have to do everything you can to provide security and safety, and to me, this is really a no-brainer because this is really one of the only ways that you can begin to quickly respond,” Ingle said.

According to Florida law, you can’t carry a gun on school property unless you are law enforcement.  The Sentinel program gets around that by making staffers "special deputies."

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But not everyone is so sure arming educators will make students safer.

“If you look worldwide, countries with guns and strict gun laws are the safest counties in the world,” Paul Devries said.  “More guns can’t be the answer, restricting guns is the answer here.”

“Gotta do something to protect our people, and I think the best way to do it is gun control laws, and it’s up to our Congress to do it,” said Albert Pitoniak.

Yet with the increasing threat of school shootings, some Bay Area teachers believe more resources on campus are needed to protect pupils.

“There’s just no way to defend yourself, we can practice running, we can practice hiding but it’s not gonna stop a gun,” one educator said.

FOX 13 News is keeping her identity anonymous because she’s worried about backlash, but the elementary school teacher tells us she’s willing and ready to conceal carry on campus -- a move that can hopefully prevent a Parkland-scale tragedy.

“In a case like this it would save lives, it 100-percent would save lives because somebody could intervene before law enforcement had time to get there,” the teacher said.

Most parents FOX 13 News spoke with are on board with a program like the one at Southeastern expanded to every school.

“With proper training, the teacher, the individuals are comfortable with that, then I think it could be a good thing,” said Jeff Meeks.

“You know, if it was my daughter in school I would want the teacher to have a gun,” Anna Barneski said.

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The Polk County Sheriff’s Office says they’ve met with at least five other schools in the county that are interested in launching a Sentinel Program.  Similar policies have been adopted in at least four other states.

There’s also a push in Tallahassee to let employees carry concealed guns on campuses across Florida.  Both the House and Senate bills are currently in committee.