Bang. Bang. Bang.
The echoing sound of simulated rounds of ammunition permeate throughout Rushe Middle School in Land O’ Lakes on a recent late June afternoon.
One by one, school safety guard trainees, with 9mm pistols drawn, carefully and methodically traverse stairwells and hallways, checking classrooms, searching to take out a fake assailant armed with an AR-15.
As each active scenario unfolds, Pasco County Sheriff’s Office instructors, such as Sgt. Christopher Squitieri, bark out directives: “Get going, gotta get going! …Know your terrain, where you’re trying to search! Where that gun goes, you go!”
Brice Hayes, a fit 26-year-old with a security background, was out of breath and sweating heavily after one such drill.
When the drill was over, Squitieri debriefed him on the effectiveness in clearing the school, and in assessing and responding to the threat.
Hayes said he pursued the school safety guard position to offer “a helping hand to kids that need help, whether it’s active shooters or a permanent threat in the schools.”
To him, the active shooter drills felt like the real thing, his mind racing throughout.
“You’ve gotta lot of things going through your head, ‘Where’s this guy at? Where’s this guy at? I gotta get to him and kill this guy,’” Hayes said. “There’s no ifs ands or buts about it, no questions — you’ve gotta take the threat out.”
The Pasco County School Board in May approved Superintendent Kurt Browning’s proposal to hire a director of safety and security, and 53 school safety guards, for the district’s elementary schools.
The school board’s action came in response to a 2018 bill passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, in the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
The law requires all school districts to provide security at all schools beginning in the 2018-2019 school year. Pasco County Schools has School Resource Officers in its middle and high schools who will continue to be stationed there.
The school safety guards — which are a less expensive option — will be posted at the district’s elementary schools. The guards, who won’t have arrest powers, will make $20 per hour.
Safety guard training began in June, with a goal of having the guards prepared for duties by August.
Before they are stationed at schools, the guards must receive at least 132 hours of training with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
The main objective: respond and neutralize on-campus threats, particularly in the event of an active shooter.
“We pray to God this never happens, but we’re training for worst case,” said Pasco Sheriff’s Capt. Jared Hill, an ex-green beret who leads the agency’s emergency management division and oversees the guard training program.
Besides active shooter scenarios, guards have been instructed on defensive and less lethal tactics, weapon retention, first aid and CPR. They’ve also undergone diversity training, which was handled by the school district.
“Basically, we’re looking for someone’s that cognizant,” said Pasco Sheriff Sgt. Richard Jones, who helps supervise the guard training program. “We’re looking for proficiency on the range, we’re looking for proficiency in defensive tactics, and, the ability to save lives during the medical portion of the training.”
Jones said the guards’ biggest strides have come in its 10 days on the firing range.
“We’re shooting nonstop. We’re shooting upwards to 1,600 rounds, and they’ve improved quite a bit,” Jones said.
In addition to guards being stationed at all Pasco elementary schools, private and charter schools in the county have hired their own guards and have taken advantage of the sheriff’s office training.
Jones said 77 guards are undergoing training this summer with the law enforcement agency. Each has passed background checks, physical and psychological exams, and drug screenings.
Many, like Chuck Balderstone, have an extensive background in either military or law enforcement.
A 28-year veteran of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, Balderstone retired from the agency in 2013, as a lieutenant and commander of the agency’s vice and narcotics unit.
Becoming a school guard was “a no-brainer” for him.
“When you do something like law enforcement for 28 years, you kind of miss it,” Balderstone said. “I certainly didn’t want to be full (time), right back into being a cop again, but this gives me a chance to go back and work with the most important part of our community — our kids.”
Hiring armed guards in all schools, while unfortunate, is necessary in today’s society, Balderstone said.
“I think it’s crazy that its come to that point and we need this, but you know what, times are changing and the bottom line is, we do need it,” he said.
“I think the biggest thing is you never want to see your schools turn into some kind of stockade-type situation,” he said.
There needs to be a balance, he said: “Hey, we’ve got to keep this place safe, but we don’t want to scare these kids.”
The former sheriff’s lieutenant is confident the county’s schools will be in good hands when it comes to campus safety.
Balderstone said he knows many of the people he’s in class with and knows they have many years of experience.
“I know that a lot of us have had as much, if not more training, than a lot of these young deputies working out there now,” Balderstone said.
The Pasco County School Board in May approved Superintendent Kurt Browning’s proposal to hire a director of safety and security, and 53 school safety guards, for the district’s elementary schools, in addition to the School Resource Officers who work in the district’s middle and high schools. The school board’s action was in response to a 2018 bill that the Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law. That law requires all school districts to provide security at all schools beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.
Published July 4, 2018