You’re in a dark room, encircled by a wall of screens, a pretend Glock semi-automatic pistol heavy in your hands. A video simulation starts, and onscreen appears a swarm of screaming children trapped inside a school, pounding on the front doors to escape.
You head inside, walking past students, some already dead, lying on the ground. Gunshots blare from a speaker to your left. You know it’s not real, but your palms sweat and your heart races. Suddenly, an armed man pops up from behind a filing cabinet. You shoot.
This is a taste of the brand new MILO 300 Theater simulator purchased by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office and experienced by FLORIDA TODAY. The nearly $125,000 system designed to recreate active-shooter scenarios was bought by Sheriff Wayne Ivey as part of the state’s Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, through which civilians are being trained to respond to armed assailants in schools.
The Brevard Sheriff’s Office already has an older simulator, but Ivey decided after last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, that his department needed another, newer model.
In the months after the Parkland shooting that left 17 dead, state legislators allocated $67 million for the guardian program, and 24 counties, including Brevard, requested about $9.3 million, including $2 million statewide for guns, ammunition and other equipment.
An investigation by FLORIDA TODAY into how counties spent money on the state’s new school protection plan shows that it’s unclear how deeply — if at all — the Florida Department of Education, which manages the program, vetted what sheriffs put in their shopping carts.
The guardian program law requires an armed presence on every school campus throughout the state to protect against the possibility of another school shooting.Many sheriffs and lawmakers hoped that school staff could be armed and trained, but each county was allowed to decide how it wanted to meet the demands of the new law.
Brevard unanimously approved the adoption of a hybrid guardian program. Unlike in some counties — where school employees including principals, coaches, custodians and cafeteria managers can volunteer for the program — the Brevard School District hired civilians with backgrounds in security, the military and law enforcement.
In all, Ivey’s department received and spent more than $860,000 to train and outfit 38 guardians now deployed in the county’s traditional public schools and charter schools.
While there was fierce debate among parents, students and educators about putting guns on campuses and arming school staff, there has been little public discussion over how the sheriff’s offices spent state money, in large part because people don’t know.
Sheriff’s offices around Florida were allowed to ask for money from the state to cover anything they deemed necessary to get the guardian program off the ground. There was no cap on how much counties could solicit, and everyone got just about everything their sheriff requested.
There are signs that the spending is starting to come under scrutiny. Florida Senate Appropriations chairman Rob Bradley, who’s a fan of the guardian project, told the News Service of Florida last month that the rollout of the program and how the state’s money has been spent will be examined during the current legislative session in Tallahassee.
Some Democratic lawmakers have criticized how much money has been given out for guns and ammunition. They argue that the funds should be going to hardening school buildings and providing mental health services to students.
Locally, complete trust was put in the Brevard Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Ivey to devise the state requests. School officials were not familiar with what Ivey had purchased, claiming it is not their job to question him.
“We don’t have any oversight on that at all, and I’m OK with that,” Brevard School Board Chair Tina Descovich said. “The sheriff decided what he was going to apply for because it’s his program.”
The Brevard Sheriff’s Office spent $124,995 in state money for a new MILO Theater 300 simulator to train school guardians.
Tim Shortt, FLORIDA TODAY
Brevard a top spender
The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office received $863,475 from the FDOE to start up the guardian program. Of that total, it received $124,995 to pay for the MILO simulator that’s housed at the Sheriff’s Office Special Operations facility in Sharpes.
Brevard also received $142,326 for salaries and benefits of the 11 sheriff’s office employees in charge of overseeing the program and training guardians; $85,332 for guns and ammunition; and $324,583 for other gear and range equipment. The rest was spent on uniforms, indoor range rental, background checks, liability insurance and projected costs to replace the guardians who leave the job.
Ivey said he believes the money, coupled with other school safety improvements made in the wake of Parkland, have made Brevard’s schools “hard targets” against an armed assailant.
According to documents FLORIDA TODAY received from the FDOE and sheriff’s office, Brevard was among the biggest spenders in the state, topped only by Polk ($1.6 million), Pinellas ($1.5 million), Pasco ($1.4 million), Broward ($988,719) and Hillsborough ($942,858). All but Pasco have larger populations than Brevard.Smaller counties got around $50,000.
Most counties used the majority of the state money for guns and ammunition, salaries and benefits for trainers, uniforms and screening. There were a few counties that used the money to buy gun safes to store the guardians’ guns; a few rented indoor and outdoor ranges for target practice; and some used the state money to buy office supplies.
The FDOE would not answer questions about specific purchases, some of which appeared to fall outside the scope of the program. For example, Hendry County spent $2,500 on warning signs to display at schools where guardians were deployed. Gilchrist County spent $1,500 on the water, electricity and utilities for the range it used for training. And Sarasota spent $8.88 for staples to hang targets at the range.
According to Brevard’s application, the $863,475 was vital to provide “the most effective and efficient training possible.” But as designed, the program did not cover the $1.2 million it cost the school district to pay for guardians’ salaries and benefits.
Each guardian was outfitted with a 9 mm firearm, holster, four magazines, high-definition night sights and lights, ballistic vests and 100 rounds of ammunition. They were equipped with active-shooter response kits, first aid and trauma kits, as well as conversion mechanisms so they could use their weapons safely in training exercises.
“For us, we got what we needed to start our program and be able to maintain and continue our program,” Ivey said. “It’s not just about getting it up off the ground. It’s about being able to sustain it, and to continue training of the individuals. The training for (the guardians) and for our deputies is continuous.”
With more than $50 million unused from the pool of available state money, sheriffs this year will have the opportunity to request more money for the program.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order last month that, among other things, directed the FDOE to reopen the application process, with an April 1 deadline.
FDOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden said each application was reviewed by the department’s fiscal staff and the Office of Safe Schools, and approved if they were deemed “reasonable … allowable and necessary.”
She gave few details about how the department vetted the requests to make sure that purchases were relevant for the programs sheriffs had designed.
“Other than ensuring that each district’s budget appropriation meets the statutory requirements, the department is not involved in oversight,” said another FDOE spokeswoman, Cheryl Etters.
Applications were looked at individually and not compared to other requests, which could explain why some counties with as few as 1,200 students got more money than counties with much larger school systems.
Sheriff’s offices were allowed to request money for background checks and training costs, including funds for “employing appropriate staff for administering the project, office materials and supplies, and other relevant costs associated with the administration of the project.”
They were not allowed to use the money for golf carts or off-road vehicles; out-of-state or overnight travel; the purchase of vehicles or facilities; decorations, advertising or marketing items; meals; game systems other than simulation equipment; renovations, furniture or kitchen appliances; organization dues; or compensation for guardians beyond a $500 stipend.
Counties also could not request funding for cellphones or tablets for guardians without prior approval from the FDOE. Most requests for communication devices other than handheld radios were denied. Pinellas and Polk, for example, spent more than $148,000 and $271,000, respectively, on radios. Brevard’s request for $42,205 for cellphones and data plans for each guardian was denied.
Florida TaxWatch President and Chief Executive Officer Dominic Calabro said he believes the setup of the funding process was appropriate for a first-year program.
“The first time out, you have to make it quick and efficient,” Calabro said. “You want to get the money into the hands of properly trained and properly equipped law enforcement personnel. You want to get the equipment in the hands of guardians. Let’s not get buried in red tape.”
But Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she would like to see greater flexibility in the use of guardian funds, with less money spent on guns and ammo and more on mental health programs and hardening of school buildings.
Florida Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Cocoa, said he’s confident that Ivey — whom many in the county consider the local security expert — can help Brevard “get the biggest bang for the buck” in state funding.
Brevard’s purchase of its MILO simulator was one of the largest single purchases among the 24 Florida sheriff’s offices that received guardian program money.
The system, which resembles a giant video game, can run simple target-shooting scenes in which the trainee shoots a simulated metal target just like he or she would at a normal range; and also runs complex scenarios in which the trainee must react as the scene unfolds and differentiate civilians from suspects.
In some of the scenarios, the trainer can control the simulation and cue up gunshots to come out of a certain speaker, or have a civilian with his hands up pop up from behind a locker to test the trainee’s reflexes. At the conclusion of the scenario, the system gives a report of shooting accuracy and reaction time.
Trainees must log a combined 24 hours at the gun range and simulator. Paired with other firearms training, the simulation is meant to help guardians determine when and when not to shoot.
Other counties also purchased simulators with the state money, but at much cheaper prices, albeit for smaller communities and smaller agencies. Hendry County purchased one for $4,404; Nassau County purchased one for $3,100; and Broward County spent $50,000 to upgrade its current system.
Ivey said the $124,995 simulator is “state-of-the-art,” and unlike other simulators local police departments and smaller counties have. Locally, the Palm Bay Police Department has a simulator it bought for $24,000; and the Public Safety Institute at Eastern Florida State College uses a $15,000 simulator.
The company that manufactures MILO simulators, FAAC Inc., makes models that range in price from $10,000 to almost $250,000.
“Here’s everything you need to know about the simulator,” Ivey said. “If you had a child in school, would you want (guardians and deputies) to train on something that was made in 2006 or would you want them to train on the latest technology possible to protect your child? That’s the only question you have to ask yourself.”
Prior to purchasing the new simulator, the sheriff’s office had a 2006 MILO model housed at its gun range complex in Cocoa. The sheriff’s office now uses that one for Saturday self-defense classes and to train deputies. In the past, BCSO has used the old MILO simulator to train members of the Air Force. The sheriff charges $75 per person for self-defense training, which includes a simulator session.
The old simulator, Ivey said, was “extremely antiquated.” He described it as a television screen trainees interacted with from at least 10 feet away.
School board defers to sheriff
Some Democratic lawmakers have questioned whether school boards should play a larger role in determining how to spend the guardian money.
“We elect members of the school boards around the state,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. “The school boards should be a part of the process.”
Not every school district handled the request process the same way.
In Polk County, for example, Sheriff’s Office Director of Communications Scott Wilder said: “Polk County Schools administration and staff worked with us, provided input, etc., on our submission for the upfront guardian program costs and funding.”
The Polk Sheriff’s Office received the largest allocation through the guardian program, at $1.6 million, and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd — like Ivey — is among the most prominent and publicly visible sheriffs in Florida.
Although the Brevard School Board made the final decision whether to implement the guardian program and helped vet hires, board members and Ivey are comfortable with school officials not playing a bigger role.
“I think the state made it very clear that all of this is all under the sheriff,” board member Misty Belford said.
Ivey said the school district should be focused on getting guardians hired, and leave the tactical and protection aspects of the program to the sheriff’s office.
Board members, saying they did not have the security knowledge to question purchases, agreed.
“I don’t think that we should be in control of how much he pays for ammunition, how much he pays for insurance, what type of gun belts he wears,” said School board Chair Matt Susin. “It’s honestly his baby.”
Caroline Glenn is the education reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact her at email@example.com or 321-576-5933, or follow her on Twitter @bycarolineglenn and like “Education at Florida Today” on Facebook.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 321-242-3649. Follow him on Twitter @bydaveberman or Facebook at /dave.berman.54
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Christina LaFortune chats with Education reporter Caroline Glenn about the money Brevard Sheriff Wayne Ivey’s office received to fund the guardian program.
Rob Landers, FLORIDA TODAY
Top state guardian money spenders:
- Polk $1.6 million
- Pinellas $1.5 million
- Pasco $1.4 million
- Broward $988,719
- Hillsborough $942,858
- Brevard $863,475
- Jacksonville $378,041
- Volusia $274,325
- Manatee $164,165
- Putnam $131,715
Here’s what the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office got:
- $142,326 for salaries and benefits
- $85,332 for guns and ammunition
- $324,583 for other equipment, including CPR and casualty care kits and range equipment
- $124,995 for MILO 300 Theater simulator
- $24,760 for uniforms
- $5,950 to rent an indoor range to train in low lighting
- $24,364 to cover costs of psychological screenings, background checks, drug tests, diversity training and credentials
- $65,000 in liability insurance and other legal fees
- $30,000 to pay $500 stipends to guardians
- $36,165 for projected attrition expenses
- 80 hours of firearms training
- 24 hours of tactical automatic pistol training via firing range and simulator
- 24 hours of active shooter training, including first aid and CPR
- 16 hours of defensive tactics training, including firearms retention
- 12 hours of legal issues training
- 12 hours of diversity training
- 8 hours of mental health training
- Quarterly retraining on legal issues, firearm proficiency, self-defense and survival tactics
- 16 hours retraining for annual recertification