Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto employs school guardian with military-style rifle

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PALMETTO — Harold Verdecia, 39, was an infantryman in the U.S. Army, completing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been shot at, and he has fired back.

“That’s just the job,” he said.

Now he patrols the hallways of Manatee School for the Arts, strapped with a Kel-Tec “Bullpup” rifle and a Glock 19X. 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.

Jones said if a shooter arrived at the campus, they would most likely be carrying a rifle, wearing body armor and looking to inflict as much carnage as quickly as possible. He said even though the Palmetto Police Department will respond, he needs someone on scene who can return force with force.

“When seconds count, (Palmetto police) are only a few minutes away,” Jones said ironically, emphasizing the need for an instant response.

Jones has thought through the nightmare scenario in minute detail. If a shooter was 100 feet away, very few officers could take him down with a handgun, Jones said, while that is a standard shot with a rifle. Verdecia’s gun is loaded with bullets that will explode on impact, rather than exiting their target and possibly hitting someone else. And, in addition to his two guns, Verdecia wears body armor. In all, he is strapped with 45 pounds of firepower.

After the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School last February, Florida lawmakers passed a law requiring all school to have armed security. Most districts met the requirement through a combination of school resource officers and guardians.

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.

Sending a message

Verdecia’s rifle would be referred to as an “assault rifle” by most people. It is loaded, but there is no round chambered, so the gun would not fire without first being cocked.

It sends a message, Jones said. Recently, some sheriff’s deputies came by the school, and Jones asked them, like he does many visitors, if they had seen the guardian.

Manatee School for the Arts guardian Harold Verdecia
Manatee School for the Arts guardian Harold Verdecia

“I asked them, ‘Did you notice him?’ They said, ‘How couldn’t you?” Jones said.

Not everyone agrees with Jones’ approach.

“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 Walt Zalisko, a retired police chief 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.”

Jones said he has worked closely with Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler on establishing MSA’s guardian program, and that Tyler has praised the efforts, saying MSA is better protected than other district schools.

Manatee School for the Arts guardian Harold Verdecia
Manatee School for the Arts guardian Harold Verdecia

“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?”

Despite occasional complaints, Jones said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. He said Verdecia’s background and the lessons leaders have gleaned from school shootings justify the heavy firepower.

“I wouldn’t hire anybody who hadn’t been shot at and fired back,” Jones said. “I need someone who has been in that situation.”

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto employs school guardian with military-style rifle