Guardian Lenny Gutmann stood at the beginning of the walkway leading to the entrance of Robert E. Willis Elementary School.
While giving high-fives to students and greeting parents who passed, Gutmann kept his eyes open for any suspicious activity.
For a year and a half, Gutmann has been at Willis Elementary as part of the School District of Manatee County’s guardian program to ensure the students, teachers and staff are protected from any possible danger. The program has an armed security officer, called a guardian, at each of the district’s elementary schools.
Although teachers, students, parents and district officials have voiced their approval of the guardians, some still want Manatee County Sheriff’s Office School Resource Officers at all the schools instead of the guardians.
Among them is James Golden, the Lakewood Ranch area’s representative on the school board.
“The guardian program was a short-sighted, knee-jerk response,” Golden said, referring to the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
The district has 39 guardians and two lead guardians in the elementary schools while the middle and high schools continue to have SROs. The district has 28 SROs.
Although several guardians have decades of law enforcement experience, Golden said many are in their “second career.”
“Quite honestly, I don’t think the safety and security of our children should be a second career,” he said. “I would much rather have someone who’s most committed to the safety and security of children because this is what they do for a living, not something they get to do because they used to do that for a living and now under statutory allowance they are able to continue to do that. That, to me, is not a good way to be.”
The effectiveness of the program won’t be known until an incident occurs, Golden said.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel about guardians until I see them under fire so to speak, not that that’s what I wish,” he said. “That’s where the proof is in the pudding.”
Golden wants trained law enforcement officers with arrest powers in the schools but said nothing will change unless state legislators change.
This school year, the guardian and SRO program cost $6.18 million. The district received just less than $3 million from the state and pays about $1.69 million, an increase of about $163,761 from last year as a result of hiring a new guardian in addition to increases in guardian and support staff salaries and contracted services for SROs.
Although the price of the overall security program is going up, it still is less expensive than having all SROs. The average cost of an SRO this school year is $75,554. The average cost of a guardian is $64,962.
If the 41 guardians were SROs, using those averages, an all-SRO program would have cost an additional $434,272.
Paul Damico, the district’s chief of safety and security, said the district has been satisfied with the guardian program and has received positive feedback from parents, students and staff.
Above anything else, Damico said guardians’ visibility provides a sense of security.
“People feel safe, feel comfortable dropping their kids off every day and having someone there to protect [students] while they get a good education,” he said. “I think it puts everyone’s minds at ease.”
He said they have blended well with their environment.
Dale Stephenson, the guardian at Tara Elementary School, participated in a teacher and staff competition of picking up candy canes using additional candy canes held in their mouths.
After picking up four candy canes in 30 seconds, he made his way around the school checking doors and watching for anything unusual.
“It’s sort of one of those mixed kind of feelings that it’s sad that it has come to this point,” Stephenson said of the need for guardians. “But as long as the Legislature thought it was necessary, I’ve only had positive feedback from teachers, administrative staff, the school board and parents that are here. So I think it’s a great program.”
Every day on campus, Gutmann said he feels “like a rockstar.” He can’t go down the halls without getting high-fives, hugs and handshakes from hundreds of students.
“I come to work with a smile every day,” Gutmann said. “I go home with a smile.”
Stephenson is humbled by the reaction he gets from students when they see him in the lunch room or by parents dropping off or picking up their students.
Massimiliano Mainella, a fifth grader at Willis Elementary, and Juliana Hayes, a second grader, both said they feel safe with a guardian at school.
“It’s good to have a friend that’s always there,” Mainella said. “I feel cared for and loved, and I know someone will always be there for me.”
Teachers and staff members like Susie Johnson, a student support specialist at Willis, also feel secure with guardians on campus.
“He provides an extra sense of security for sure,” Johnson said. “He’s always checking doors, making sure they’re locked. If we ask him to do anything for the safety and security of our students, he’s on it right away.”
Value of relationships
Building a rapport with students is crucial for the guardians because it makes students feel comfortable to approach them and “maybe even stop something from happening,” Stephenson said. A strong relationship also fosters a positive relationship with law enforcement.
Johnson said the guardians’ law enforcement experiences allow them to offer a different perspective on active shooter drills, which can be scary, and safety procedures and provide tips on how to improve.
Damico said the guardians provide an opportunity for more communication between the schools and the district as they can notify the district of any requests to improve safety.