LAKELAND, Fla. – The Valentine's Day massacre that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has renewed the debate of whether to arm teachers and staff members at Florida schools.
Just this week, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd met with lawmakers in Tallahassee to discuss how to empower specially trained school staff members to carry concealed weapons on campus.
"We believe in prevention and intervention up front," Judd said.
The sheriff's Sentinel program is currently being used at one private university in Polk County.
Southeastern University in Lakeland started the program in July. It currently has eight staff members who volunteered to be the campus's first line of defense should a gunman target the school.
Chris Owen is one of them. He is part of the university's administrative staff and wanted to do more to enhance school safety.
"We feel prepared," Owen said. "It's sad that we live in a time that requires this, but I am grateful for Sheriff Judd and the training that we went through."
The partnership with the Polk County Sheriff's Office requires each volunteer sentinel to complete 100 hours of firearms training and safety training, and 32 hours of deadly force training. They also have to pass a criminal background check, drug screening
, and a psychological evaluation. Their job is to provide security on campus during an active shooter incident and to neutralize the threat.
"I want to make sure they have the appropriate training in order to carry out their mission, should an active shooter show up on campus," Judd said.
Owen says he and the other sentinels are placed in strategic locations and work in tandem with the other security measures already in place on campus, which include surveillance cameras and visibly armed deputies from the Sheriff's Office. But only the Sheriff's Office and the upper echelon of the university know who and where all the sentinels are.
"It's invisible -until you need it," Judd said.
More than 7,200 students attend the private Christian college. The school's president says he feels the Sentinel Program is getting results.
"Absolutely," said Dr. Kent Ingle, who has been president of Southeastern University for the past seven years. "The greatest result is we haven't had to engage it. We haven't had an active shooter come on campus, and hopefully, that will never happen. But we are ready."
Ingle says right now the Sentinel program commands about 30% of the college's safety budget.
"At the heart of this is to provide the safest and secure learning environment we can," Ingle said.
Nathaniel Jordan, a graduating senior at Southeastern, says the sentinels provide one extra layer of security to the campus.
"As a student, I feel extremely safe having them here," said Jordan.
There are plans to possibly double the number of these specialized deputies at Southeastern University as more volunteers continue to express their interest.
This week another Florida university -Webber International University - also signed with the Sheriff's Office to start a Sentinel program there.
"For those who think we are just giving a gun to a teacher - wrong," Sheriff Judd said. "We're giving a gun to a very experienced trained professional to keep your