WATCH: Armed school ‘guardians’ train in Lake County to stop active shooter

2-day training exercise prepped guardians

The sound of simulated gunfire echoed through the hallways and classrooms of Tavares High School this summer as armed school district employees, known as guardians, practiced tracking down and stopping an active school shooter.

TAVARES, Fla. – The sound of simulated gunfire echoed through the hallways and classrooms of Tavares High School this summer as armed school district employees, known as guardians, practiced tracking down and stopping an active school shooter.

“This is the world we live in. Our precious resources are in our schools, and we need to be willing to go in there and protect them,” said Tim O’Brien, a lieutenant with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office who helped oversee the 2-day training exercise.

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Following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead, state lawmakers established the guardian program to allow certain trained school employees to carry firearms on campus.

“We take safety and security at the highest priority,” said Lake County Schools Safety and Security Supervisor Joseph Mabry, who also serves as a guardian. “If someone comes on any of our campuses to do any harm to our students, we will do anything we can to eliminate that threat immediately.”

After a daylong firearms training session at the Lake County Sheriff’s Office gun range, about 30 guardians and their instructors were ushered into Tavares High School, which was closed for the summer.

Inside one of the school’s classrooms, which was previously decorated with bulletin boards containing photos of actual students and teachers, a deputy wearing camouflage clothing played the role of a school shooter.

To signal the start of the training exercise, O’Brien stood in an outdoor stairwell and fired a rifle containing blanks towards the center of the high school campus.

Within moments, a guardian armed with a training pistol began climbing the stairs in search of the mock gunman.

As the guardian entered a doorway under a Tavares High School sign, the employee was immediately surrounded by deputies and fellow guardians who posed as students running for their lives.

“You can see it in their face the first time going through it, their tunnel vision,” O’Brien said. “They have to process what they’re seeing. For the first time, they’re seeing people screaming at them, yelling down the hallway. They may have never encountered that, and they’re going to encounter that in a real situation.”

Running from classroom to classroom, the guardian practiced looking for a gunman while trying to ignore pleas for help from colleagues portraying injured students.

“There’s movement. There’s yelling. There’s a lot going on. And they have to identify the target,” Mabry said.

Another simulated rifle blast rattled the hallway, signaling the location of the gunman.

“Unless you’re used to gunfire, especially in a closed situation like this, it can be very confusing,” Mabry told News 6. “It takes a well-trained person to identify the individual who is the active assailant.”

Once the guardian entered the classroom and confronted the deputy portraying the gunman, the two exchanged fire using simulated training ammunition until the shooter collapsed on the floor.

“Own the room! Find a corner!” instructors shouted as the guardians pretended to check their bodies for injuries and reached for their handheld radios.

“Tavares High School. Building 6. Assailant down,” one guardian announced over the radio as the intense drill came to an end.

“It’s amazing to see,” Mabry said. “It’s reassuring to know these individuals are trained and well prepared.”

Under the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which was named in honor the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School assistant football coach who died while shielding students from bullets, employees of participating school districts can volunteer to serve as guardians in addition to their official job duties.

School districts can also hire people, including licensed security guards, specifically to work as guardians.

All guardians must undergo a psychological evaluation and complete an extensive training program overseen by local sheriffs’ offices.

“Some (guardians) are retired military. Some are retired police officers,” O’Brien said. “Some of them do have some type of background (in active shooter situations). Some don’t.”

Most Florida school districts participate in the state’s guardian program including those in Lake, Brevard, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Sumter, and Volusia counties.

Guardians are often used in conjunction with armed School Resource Officers, which are provided by local law enforcement agencies.

Public schools in Seminole and Flagler counties rely fully on School Resource Officers and do not participate in the guardian program.

In Lake County, the school district works closely with the sheriff’s office to ensure guardians are ready to assist if needed.

“We want to make sure people know our campuses are protected,” O’Brien said. “If (a shooter) comes on one of our campuses, we’re going to do what we need to do to make sure our kids go home at the end of the day.”

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About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.