Just south of Tampa, Fla., students at the Manatee School for the Arts (MSA) roam the hallways past an armed combat veteran who is constantly looking out for threats. By the end of February, another one will be manning a guard shack at at the school's entrance.
39-year-old Harold Verdecia, a former infantryman in the US army who completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, patrols the hallways of Manatee strapped with a 9mm Glock 19X and a Kel-Tec "Bullpup" rifle, according to the Herald Tribune.
Verdecia isn’t there to get to know the kids, break up fights or do the typical community-policing that school resource officers typically do, said MSA Principal Bill Jones.
Verdecia has one job: Stop an active shooter. -Herald Tribune
"When seconds count, (Palmetto police) are only a few minutes away," says Principal Jones - who has gamed out the nightmare school shooter scenario in exacting detail. He's also justified Verdecia's use of a semi-automatic rifle instead of just a handgun.
"We’re not looking for a fair fight," Jones said in an interview cited by the New York Times. "We’re looking at an overwhelming advantage."
With a shooter just 100 feet away, there aren't many officers who could take the suspect down with a handgun, according to Jones. With a rifle, however, Verdecia could make that shot with hollow-point bullets designed to flower on impact and shred the shooter's internal organs instead of exiting his body and hitting someone else.
In order to become a guardian, Verdercia completed the 144-hour training course that the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office ran for the school district, plus additional training to be qualified to carry the rifle. District general counsel Mitch Teitelbaum said while school district guardians are trained using 9-millimeter Glocks, charter schools have the freedom to arm their guardians with other weapons.
Despite his status as perhaps the most lethal guardian in Manatee County, Verdecia is soft spoken and quietly dedicated to his task. He estimated he walks 9 miles a day, patrolling the vast campus.
Jones said Verdecia earns more than $50,000 a year, plus benefits, to protect the more than 2,000 students at MSA. He is hoping to hire another guardian soon, and Jones was reviewing applications in his office on Thursday. -Herald Tribune
To protect himself from incoming fire, Verdecia wears body armor.
To hire Verdecia and his new co-worker, MSA took advantage of a law passed by Florida lawmakers in the wake of last February's shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School requiring all schools to have armed security. Most districts achieved this through a combination of school resource officers and guardians - and most just carry handguns, according to the Herald Tribune. Principal Jones justifies the decision to arm Verdecia with a rifle. "It’s just a much more effective weapon than the handgun is."
Security expert Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, says he is not aware of any other school guards who carry long guns, though it is commonplace in some foreign countries.
"It’s not something that we typically advise our clients to do for a variety of reasons," said Dorn, noting that someone might knock the officer out and take the weapon, and it's not as easy to subdue and handcuff someone while carrying a rifle.
Not everyone agrees with MSA's approach to school safety, according to the Herald Tribune.
"You don’t walk around with an assault rifle strapped to your chest in a school. That is not the normal policy of police agencies," said retired police chief Walt Zalisko, who now owns a Daytona Beach-based global investigative group and police management consulting business.
Zalisko said it is best practice to keep rifles locked up within a police car or in a secure location, and he said guardians or school resource officers are more effective when they are able to regularly engage with students, rather than viewing their job as solely stopping a mass shooter.
“His job is to protect the kids, and he can do that with a handgun, but it is also to form positive relationships,” Zalisko said. “Develop information on who may have drugs or weapons. There is a lot involved.” -Herald Tribune
Principal Jones, meanwhile, said he has worked closely with Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler to develop MSA's guardian program - efforts which Tyler has given his blessing.
"Assault rifles, whether you are for them or against them, are prolific in our society," Tyler said. "Lord knows how many assault-type rifles are out there. So why would we not want the school guardian to have parity with that potential threat?"
Jones says that most people have responded positively to Verdecia's presence on campus aside from occasional complaints, and that Verdecia's status as a former combat veteran has had a lot to do with it.
"I wouldn’t hire anybody who hadn’t been shot at and fired back," said Jones. "I need someone who has been in that situation."