Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden introduces the Archangel Program

Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden answers questions as the department captains look on. (Caloosa Belle/Val White)

On Friday, March 2, the Hendry County Sheriff’s Department held a press conference to discuss the Sheriff’s Archangel Program. Sheriff Steve Whidden, along with Hendry County School District School Superintendent, Paul Puletti, fielded questions after the announcement of the proposed Sheriff’s Archangel Program, in which ‘Archangels’ will be placed in the Hendry County Schools as “special deputies” with concealed weapons to provide extra security on Hendry County School campuses.

“After the Sandy Hook School shooting, I decided to look at our own situation here in Hendry County,” Sheriff Whidden said. “At that time, we had only four School Resource Officers in the entire Hendry County School system; two in the middle schools and two in the high schools, which left our elementary schools unsecured.”

After meeting with Superintendent Puletti, the two of them worked with the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners to raise enough money to provide School Resource Officers for every school campus in Hendry County.

Following the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Sheriff Whidden wanted to provide even more security in the Hendry County Schools.

“Once again, I met with Superintendent Pulleti. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about metal detectors, bulletproof glass, mental health, and a lot of things that need to be implemented. But, the reality of that is that it takes time and money. Neither of which we have right now,” said the Sheriff. “What I’m worried about is something happening immediately, tomorrow. Parkland was too close to home,” he added.

“What we are looking at doing is selecting qualified and capable staff members; not necessarily teachers, but staff members within the schools. They would undergo a background check, psychological testing, drug testing, and polygraphs (the same as any Hendry County Sheriffs Department Officers would have) to make sure they are safe and mentally stable to be in our schools and around children. That is our first priority.”

Once the individuals have underwent the screening process they would have a total of 66 hours of tactical training. There would be a 20 hour block of instruction for firearms based on the CJSTC law enforcement academy training model which includes firearm safety, familiarization, cleaning and basic firearms usage. In fact, the ‘typical’ academy student would fire approximately 1000 training rounds during the academic training, but the  Archangel Program trainee would fire 1300-1500 rounds. There will be an eight hour block of instruction on precision pistol training, an eight hour block of discretionary shooting training, six hours of instruction using a state of the art firearm simulations exercise, eight hours of active shooter/assailant instruction, eight hours of firearm retention and combative training instruction, and a six hour block of legal/high liability instruction. All of this training will be conducted by a CJSTC-certified instructor and all ongoing and annual proficiency training will be conducted by the HCSO.

It is the intention of the Hendry County Sheriff’s Department to hold the Archangel trainees to a higher standard than even their own Sheriff’s Deputies. The Archangel Program participants will be required to pass the firearms training at an 85 percent pass rate compared to the standard 80 percent pass rate set by the CJSTC. The precision pistol course is, in fact, not required of deputy sheriffs and is usually practiced more by SWAT and Special Response Teams. Additionally, the Archangel program requires eight hours of active shooter/assailant training whereas the deputies are only required to have six hours training.

“Again, we are doing this to ensure that these individuals are 100 percent capable and safe in our schools and around our children,” Sheriff Whidden said.

“We have had a tremendous amount of support, but there are people who are concerned because they do not want guns in our schools or around our kids,” he added. The Sheriff stressed the importance and clarity of the intention of the program to maintain annonymoty with the unmarked Archangel officers, keeping students away from guns and preserving a safe environment.

“One thing to think about,” said the Sheriff, “if an active shooter was to come into our schools right now and start shooting, and the first person that they kill is our School Resource Officer, then what? What happens then? Our children would be helpless, defenseless, and running for their lives. We can’t leave them defenseless anymore. We have to take a stand, take action, and do it now. Another thing is deterrence; If they know that we have someone on the other side who can return fire back to them, then they aren’t going to come in. We are going to do what we can to better protect our children and our babies here in Hendry County.”

Superintendent Paul Puletti added, “I want to make this amply clear that this falls squarely into the approval process of the Hendry County School Board. The school board received this information and has to do their due diligence. I’m sure that their concerns will be with liability questions, compensation pieces, among other things. This is going to require the School Board to establish a set of policies and under Florida Law the School Board establishes school policies. The earliest that we can get any of this to the board is March 27. We have grave concerns about arming teachers. This is not to say that they would automatically be excluded, but our concerns would be the decision that a teacher would have to make about leaving their classroom of 18-25 students or to stay and protect their class. We really don’t want them to have to have that internal debate.”

The Superintendent also went on to say that they plan to have, above and beyond the Archangel Program, a program that would train first responders so that they wouldn’t have to wait for any situations to be clear before providing relief. “As Superintendent I should be having to worry about attendance and test scores. I shouldn’t have to be worried about children being murdered. This is the world we are living in,” he said.

Both Sheriff Whidden and Superintendent Puletti stressed the intention of The Sheriff’s Archangel Program as an effort to protect and strengthen the schools in Hendry County.

Val can be reached at cbnews@newszap.com

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