First class of armed school guardians sworn in Polk County
(Posted: Thursday, Aug 02, 2018)
The February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School prompted Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Meadow Pollack’s father to urge lawmakers to pass the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.
LAKELAND — As the first graduates of a school guardian program anywhere in the country looked on, Andrew Pollack, father of slain Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Meadow Pollack, told the 87 men and women that because of them, his daughter’s murder on February 14 was not in vain.
“I can’t tell you how emotional it was watching all you guardians walk in,” Pollack said. Meadow was one of 14 students, two coaches and a teacher to die when a gunman, whom Pollack will only refer to as inmate 181958, walked into the Parkland school and opened fire with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. “Hopefully, you’ll never be tested. Hopefully, by sitting there, you’ll prevent someone from coming in.”
The massacre at MSD high school prompted Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Pollack to go to Tallahassee and urge lawmakers to pass the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, named after the football coach who placed himself in front of students and was shot to death. The program gives school districts the option to highly train and arm personnel.
Polk County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Scott Wilder said guardians in public schools will wear uniforms, but those in charter schools will carry concealed weapons and not be identifiable. All the graduates Monday night wore their side arms.
The graduates, their families and friends, along with a collection of law enforcement officers, gathered at the RP Funding Center on Monday night for the swearing-in ceremony. Judd and Polk County School Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd called on God to bless the guardians.
“Make no mistake — I want you to shoot the assailant graveyard dead before he gets to our children,” Judd told the graduates to the loud applause of nearly everyone in the room. “You are not just civilians. You’re highly trained guardians for our children.”
Judd pointed out that they had 651 applicants to the program.
“You may not see yourself as a hero, but you answered a call others would not or could not,” Byrd said. “On August 13, all of our students — 100,000-plus — will arrive at our schools. This is what’s important to us, for them to see you there.”
Marcus Patterson, Jr., 65, is a retired law enforcement officer with a 36-year-career, 28 of those in Lakeland and 17 as gun range master for the Lakeland Police Department. He earned two of the three honor awards Monday night — top gun for weapon proficiency and top academics. He earned perfect scores on every gun firing test and every post exam in the classroom.
“This seemed to have a real purpose,” Patterson said when asked why he wasn’t fishing or playing golf. He said he has had the opportunity to talk with Andrew Pollack, but his speech Monday night was “certainly a reminder of the why.”
Cousins Ronnie and Marcus Ghent, both 38, are already involved in the school system as coaches. Ronnie Ghent, a former NFL player for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cincinnatti Bengals and the New Orleans Saints, said they both wanted to make a difference in the community.
“We both feel the same way,” Ronnie Ghent said. “If something would’ve happened, we’d both do something.”
Justin Kilgore, 28, was there with his wife Grace and their 3-month-old daughter Norah. He walked across the stage in his new gray uniform and stood between Judd and Byrd to receive his certificate and shake their hands.
“It’s a great program with some amazing people,” Kilgore said, looking at his wife and baby. “Ultimately, I’m doing it for her and for her.”
The guardian program has drawn some criticism because the legislature didn’t fully fund it and because some people do not want armed personnel in schools.
But Pollack said if this kind of program has been in place in February, his beautiful daughter would be starting college next month. He said he has struggled to find words sometimes to explain the depth of his loss and pain and has turned to a Jewish saying: He who saves a life saves the whole world.
“The whole world doesn’t exist anymore for my daughter Meadow,” Pollack said. “You’re saving whole worlds, each containing infinite beauty and meaning.”
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