Inside the sentinel training program: Arming teachers in Polk County

While the country continues to debate solutions to best protect schools from gun violence, some Polk County private schools are increasingly interested in the idea of arming teachers. 

At Southeastern University in Lakeland, this idea has been in effect for several months. The school's first trained, armed, and deputized teachers, known as "sentinels", were sworn in last year.

Dr. Chris Owen is one of those sentinels on campus. He is also the school's executive vice president and says previous school shootings across the country spurred him to take part in the Sentinel program.

"Every time we would hear about another school shooting, another senseless death of a student that was defenseless, it leaves you in a place where you're heartbroken, but at the same time you're angry because someone wasn't there to protect them," Dr. Owen says.

Southeastern currently has 8 sentinels, who, with the exception of Dr. Owen, are kept secret, and the school has plans to double the number this fall. Webber International, another private university in Polk County, signed onto the program recently, and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says five other private schools have inquired about doing the same. 

Southeastern president, Dr. Kent Ingle, says this collaboration between the university and the Polk County Sheriff's Office made sense to him, given the average active shooter incident lasts about 3 minutes, and law enforcement response is usually above 5 minutes.

"9-1-1 is an element that we are going after law enforcement to come help us. This Sentinel program--law enforcement will already be here," Dr. Ingle says.

Southeastern spends about a third of its security budget on the Sentinel program. Dr. Ingle would not reveal specific numbers but says the program costs them in the "hundreds of thousands" of dollars.

President Trump has expressed support for the armed teachers concept, while some state leaders, like Governor Rick Scott are against it.

"My focus is on law enforcement," Governor Scott has said of the idea. "Let law enforcement do the keeping us safe, and let teachers focus on teaching."

Others have questioned the fairness of matching up a teacher against an active shooter.

"When a killer comes in with an assault rifle, that is not a fair fight," Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) says. "That is not a fair fire fight from a pistol to an automatic or a semi-automatic assault rifle."

However, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says these staff members are not only armed with pistols. They also receive law enforcement training.

"These teachers and coaches are charging in with no weapons and dying to protect children," Sheriff Judd says, of previous school shootings. "Think about how the game changer will be if they have a gun and are well-trained."

"We're not just handing a gun to a teacher. We are providing a firearm for a very professional, well-trained person to keep their children alive," said Sheriff Judd.

FOX 13 compared the Sentinel training with that of a full-time officer.

According to FDLE, basic recruits must have 80 hours of firearms training and 80 hours of defensive tactics, which includes hand-to-hand combat and tactics to ensure someone does not grab their gun in a fight.

In comparison, Sentinels receive 4 hours of defensive tactics. However, their firearms training includes the same 80 hours as a basic recruit plus:
-16 hours of precision pistol training
-4 hours of discretionary (shoot-or-don't-shoot) training
-An extra 8 hours of active shooter training
-20 hours of deadly force legal education (learning when to legally step into a situation and shoot)

It's a total of 132 hours of training.

The sheriff's office also says sentinels must pass a background check, psychological exam, and must retrain and retest four times a year. Judd says the guns are approved by the sheriff's office and purchased by the school. The guns are kept in secure places, away from students and others, but for security reasons, Judd would not say how or where.

As for whether all these checks and balances will not fail, Judd says nothing is 100 percent.

"If we didn't do things because of civil liability, we'd never do anything, but I can tell you this, we'll accept the responsibility and the liability," Judd says. "I'm not going to let anyone have a gun without meeting the highest standards and qualify appropriately."

It's certainly a big responsibility to bear for these sentinels, and as volunteers, they get no extra money for it. However, Dr. Owen says that's not why he's part of the program.

"The first day of our training, and the first lieutenant came in. The very first question he asked or statement that he made--that if you're not willing to put your life on the line for someone else, you're in the wrong room," Dr. Owen says. "I think each sentinel searched their heart and made that decision that--yeah--our students are worth laying our lives on the line to protect."