Eugene Figueroa was sitting in the living room of his Spring Hill home when he first saw the reports of another school shooting, this time on Feb. 14 of this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, FL.
Figueroa’s heart dropped. He felt sick. He could not believe that once again, helpless and unsuspecting children had been gunned down in their classrooms.
In the aftermath, the debate raged for days and months — how can we stop this from happening again?
Figueroa, a 51-year-old retired correctional officer, had his own ideas, and they didn’t involve arming teachers or running schools like a military base.
His idea involved people like him, retired law enforcement, retired military, retired security.
“I’m right here,” he yelled one night at his television as pundits argued over the best course of action.
As it turned out, Figueroa wasn’t alone. The idea of requiring an armed security officer at every school in Florida’s 67 countywide districts was almost immediately passed into law following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas, with $67 million set aside to fund it. While that wasn’t enough to pay for actual police officers, counties like Pasco had opted to hire 55 full-time “guardians” for its 49 elementary schools.
“We had 200 people apply in the first two days,” says Pasco County assistant superintendant for support services Elizabeth Kuhn. “We had to shut the ad down.”
Among the first to apply were Figueroa, now stationed at Seven Oaks, Roy Wright, who is at Veterans, and Fred Jackson at Quail Hollow elementary schools.
When the county launched the school security program, it was looking for very specific people. Previous experience in law enforcement, security or the military was a must, and the ability to relate to children and thrive in a school environment was just as important.
“A lot of the job would be interacting with kids, not just standing up against a wall,” Kuhn said. “This was not just a law enforcement job, it was not just a school job, it was both.”
That made it perfect for Jackson, a soft-spoken, 52-year-old retired police officer from Fort Myers.
Jackson had worked with children his entire adult life. He was a D.A.R.E. officer, helping to keep kids from getting involved in drugs and gangs, and was a school resource officer for 10 years.
“My whole life was trying to make life better for people in predominantly poor areas,” Jackson says.
That included time working the streets in some of Fort Myers’ most drug-infested areas, and watching the crack epidemic take off and, unfortunately, flourish.
Quail Hollow’s security guard sees himself as a mentor, much in the way he viewed his middle school football coach, who was also a police officer and often wore his uniform to practices.
“That really appealed to me,” he says.
Football was Jackson’s plan B. He was a standout safety for Florida A&M High in Tallahassee, and earned a scholarship to Florida A&M University (also in Tallahassee) before his playing days were scuttled by a neck injury.
He was working a security job in Atlanta when his wife Eugenia, a third-grade teacher at Woodland Elementary in Zephyrhills, told him about the opportunity.
“I was saddened by the Parkland shooting, thinking about all the innocent kids who didn’t have a chance to mature and grow up to be whatever they wanted to be,” Jackson says. “So, the chance to reach kids and protect kids, this was the best thing for me. I really saw this as a calling.”
Like every school security officer, Jackson underwent 132 intensive hours of training this summer in preparation, a good many of those hours dedicated to the gun range and live shooter simulations.
In Pasco, school security officers wear a ballistic vest, and carry a gun on one hip and a Taser on the other. “And we have ample amounts of ammunition,” Jackson says.
Jackson loves his interactions with the kids at Quail Hollow, describing it as a family.
And, while he understands why some parents may have initially been leery of an armed guard around their children, just the other day a father there to pick up his son walked up to him to thank him for what he is doing.
“I pray for you guys every night,” he told Jackson, who has a job he wishes wasn’t necessary. But, it is one he feels it is one of the most important he has ever had.
“The only reason we are here is to protect your babies,” Jackson says, “and the teachers, so they can teach your babies.”
At the end of the day, the No. 1 job for a school security officer is to run towards a threat and try and eliminate it. It is not for the feint of heart, but then again, neither is Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex.
A graduate of Norman Thomas High in Manahattan, Figueroa and his best friend both were attracted to being New York City cops. While his friend became a police officer, however, Figueroa decided to go the correctional officer route.
His first real job was at Rikers. He started at the Otis Bantum Center (OBC), and spent time working in some of the island’s other nine jails before transitioning to a transportation officer, hauling the bad guys back and forth.
Only six months into his job in 1990, Rikers Island erupted into a riot after an inmate assaulted an officer. That year, there were 2,500 violent incidents on the island.
“Pretty hair raising,” says Figueroa. “I was only one year in, and that was an eye opening experience. Luckily, God’s grace stood with me for 20 years.”
He and his wife Yvonne moved to Spring Hill in 2015, and since then, Eugene has spent most of his time fishing. But, the father of two grown children and grandfather to 1-, 7- and 8-year-olds, he, too, was sickened, and driven to apply to be a school security officer, by what happened in Parkland.
Like Jackson, Figueroa sees himself as a mentor to the students, and the first line of defense against any outside danger.
He is a presence during drop off and pick up times, and during the day, walks around campus, eyes always open, the route always varying.
“I’m like a junkyard dog, roaming the property,” he says.
When he peeks in on classrooms at Seven Oaks, he’ll flash a big smile or a thumbs up, with teachers and students often replying in kind. The school, he says, as have most of the parents, has warmed up to his presence. “Some are receptive, some aren’t and that’s okay,” Figueroa says. “They’re going to love me at the end of the day when I’m the one taking a bullet for one of their kids, God forbid.”
Wright also hopes that never has to happen for any of his fellow security officers, but he has spent his whole life preparing for it.
He joined the military in 1986 after graduating from high school. He was Military Police, and was stationed in Germany from 1986-94, and when he returned to Augusta, GA, he joined a Special Reaction (or SWAT) team.
After leaving the military in 2000, Wright became a high-threat diplomat security contractor, working in Bosnia and Kuwait, and, for 16 years, in Iraq.
In 2016, he traded in that stressful career for a local security job in the hopes of settling down with his fiancée.
When the Parkland shootings took place, his first reaction was to think of a way to help. The school security job allows him to do that.
“I can tell you that every person in my class, and we started with 58, everyone either had grandchildren or children and all felt as strongly as I did about being here and taking care of our younger generation,” Wright says.
After his training. Wright chose to be stationed at Veterans Elementary, because he is a veteran who wanted to settle down in Wesley Chapel.
He says the transition to spending his days around the kids he is responsible for protecting is “wonderful.”
On his first day, he arrived to find “Welcome to the team, Roy” written on a dry erase board on the wall behind his desk, which is in a hallway. He has no plans to wipe it off.
“From day one, everyone has been so supportive,” he says.
The kids call him Mr. Roy, or Mr. Security, which makes him laugh.
He is always on the move, checking gates and doors, and keeping a close eye on the school playground, which faces S.R. 54.
“There were some parents who were skeptical,” Wright says. “I had a father tell me, ‘Mr. Roy, initially I wasn’t very fond of the program, but I travel (S.R. 54) here periodically and to see you standing outside the playground like you do, taking care of our children….well, I want to apologize and say thank you.’”
The kids at the school have taken notice as well. One little boy, Wright says, came up to him a few weeks ago and asked why he hadn’t seen the security officer that day during recess. Wright had been in a meeting, and the boy had noticed that the footprints Wright usually left near the playground weren’t there.
“I missed you out there,” the boy said.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” Wright replied.
The moment cemented what he had hoped going in — that his presence would be felt, and would make everyone feel safer.
That feeling is likely pervasive across not only Wesley Chapel, but also across Pasco County and the state. While Figueroa, Jackson and Wright wish the jobs they have and love weren’t necessary, they feel strongly that they are.
“I’m wholeheartedly into this program and feel strongly about it, but it is unfortunate that it is a necessity now,” Wright says. “It’s a shame our children have to be protected by a person like me, or a sheriff’s officer or police officer. But that’s what we’re here for, and that’s what we will do.”