Teachers of all ages, races, genders and grade levels came to Safety Harbor on Saturday to become students for a day, participating in a free concealed weapons course conducted by a Clearwater firearms instructor.
Lenny Bogdanos, owner of International Protection Agency and head of the after school karate program for Pinellas County schools, conducted the course as a favor to his teacher friends, though he never expected the turnout the offer generated.
After sending a message out on his Facebook account, Bogdanos began receiving responses at an impressive clip — hundreds of emails and voicemails per day; the response forced him to split the class into two groups of 100 to be held over two weekends.
“The turnout was overwhelming,” Bogdanos said during a break in the training. “They’re all good sports, they’re enjoying it, they’re listening, they’re taking it all in.”
“The response has been awesome.”
The four-hour course was held at the Safety Harbor VFW Post #10093 in order to accommodate the larger-than-expected crowd.
The participants, all Pinellas County educators, had to sit through a lengthy seminar on gun safety conducted by a Pinellas County law enforcement official that covered everything from how to handle a firearm to whether or not to tell your kids you have a gun.
During the training, Bogdanos and other licensed instructors took groups of 10 teachers out back to make sure they knew how to load, unload and, yes, fire a gun.
“Having a good instructor is like having a coach when you fight,” Bogdanos said. “If you can get your coach to pre-frame you properly, you’re going to have … a much more relaxed environment so they can think better.”
Upon completing the class, each participant will be able to get a concealed firearms permit from the state of Florida, a process that can take up to eight weeks, according to Bogdanos.
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Two questions hung over the class: why take the course, and should educators be allowed to carry firearms on campus in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy?
When asked, the teachers gave varying answers.
“It all started with Sandy Hook,” East Lake High School special ed instructor Nancy Napierala said. “I think teachers should know what they’re doing when it comes to protecting themselves.
“If properly trained, I absolutely believe we should be able to carry firearms on campus.”
Safety Harbor Middle School teacher Jeanne Gagliardo, who is married to a retired New York City cop, had a different take on the subject.
“I’ve been around guns for a long time, so I felt it was time to learn how to use one,” she said. “But I don’t think we should have them at school, even if they make a law saying we can.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. I mean, why would we? It’s dangerous.”
Meanwhile Alicia Mears, who came with a group of teachers from Forest Lakes Elementary in Oldsmar, said she sits squarely on the fence when it comes to the subject of teachers being armed in school.
“I’m neutral,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it, but if some teachers wanted to, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”
No matter where they stood on the issue of guns on campus, everyone asked said they were attending the class for one reason: to be better educated in the area of self-protection.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, but recent events made it more important to me,” said Terri Cunningham of Oak Grove Middle School.
“I mean we’re teachers. It’s all about getting more education.”
Bogdanos said he will host another class next week, and he has been asked to conduct a similar course in Hillsborough County, if he can handle all the work.
"I'm running out of weekends and time to do this," he said. "It's been exhausting."
For more information on Bogdanos and the concealed weapons classes, visit his company's website, internationalep.com.