Teachers with guns: Republican-led Legislature a step closer to allowing it

Students protest at the FL Capitol in 2018 after the Parkland school shooting tragedy. Julie Hauserman photo

A proposal that would allow teachers to legally carry guns on school campuses is one step closer to becoming law, after the full Florida Senate advanced legislation Wednesday.

The controversial measure passed 22-16, with Republicans approving and Democrats opposing.  (Democrat Kevin Rader from Palm Beach and Republican Anitere Flores from Miami did not vote. Flores was the lone Republican to oppose the bill in a committee last week). The measure has one final vote in the Senate.

Lawmakers who support the proposal say they are simply following the recommendation of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was formed after the shooting massacre in Parkland in February 2018. The commission came out in support of arming school teachers in its final report.

Throughout Wednesday’s debate, Republicans repeated the mantra that the program is optional, with school boards and teachers having the right to decide whether they want to carry a firearm in the classroom.

“They’re not demanded to do this. They’re not told to do this. They volunteer,” said Senator Gayle Harrell, a Republican from Stuart. “They also must have a psychological test. They must be screened to make sure that they are able and capable of doing this. Then, they must have the training that is necessary to do it.”

The bill requires so-called “guardians” to get a $500 stipend for participating in the program, which would require them to go through a psychological evaluation and 144 hours of training. Each guardian would have to be appointed by a school superintendent or charter school principal.

Democrats proposed a series of amendments while debating the bill, with all but two rejected by the GOP majority. The most significant was an amendment by Senator Perry Thurston, a Democrat from Broward County, that would exclude teachers from the guardian program, because Democrats say it will present unintended – and negative – consequences if it becomes state law.

“In my district, there are children living with gun violence everyday outside of school. The school is a safe space for them,” said Senator Oscar Braynon, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County. “The teacher is a safe space for them. Let’s not inject this into that safe space for these children.”

“Why do we put them in the position – a classroom teacher – who did not go into the profession to be a law enforcement officer – why do we put that person in a position of having to make a choice of being the last line of defense?” asked state Senator Bill Montford, a Democrat from North Florida. “Why do we do that?”

State Senator Travis Hutson, a Republican from Palm Coast, rejected the Democrats arguments by raising up a “pencil for peace” that he said he recently received from a retired school teacher.

“I don’t think this stops a gun, or an assailant. I get it that they want peace, but that pencil is not going to stop a gunman from coming into our schools,” he said. “We are not going to be able stop an assailant with arithmetic or grammar…the only thing we have for our teachers who are in harm’s way is to fire back.”

Picking up on the GOP majority’s mantra that the bill simply presented options, state Senator Annette Taddeo, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County, offered an amendment that would give parents the option of removing their child from a classroom if he or she is attending a school where teachers are armed.

“Currently, parents have the right to sign waivers, opt-ins, and opt-outs in many areas, including in certain testing, certain education programs and certain physical education requirements,” said Taddeo. “They should have the same rights when it comes to whether their child is to be in a classroom with a gun.”

The amendment went nowhere.

Neither did a proposal by Senator Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, that would have allowed local sheriffs who choose not to support the guardian program still be able to access those state  funds for school security.

The measure that passed the Senate Wednesday calls for a new “Office of Safe Schools” inside the Department of Education.

To make sure that armed teachers are held accountable for any ill-conceived acts, the Republican majority accepted two amendments offered by Senator Braynon. One would require that a school district notify its county sheriff and the Office of Safe Schools within 72 hours after a safe school officer is disciplined and/or discharges their gun “in the exercise of the guardian’s duties.”

The other amendment calls for the Office of Safe Schools to publish a yearly list of the number of safe-school officers in the state, how many officers were disciplined or relieved of their duties because of misconduct, and the number of disciplinary incidents involving safe-school officers where the officer  discharged their firearm outside of a training situation or while  exercising their duties.

Florida lawmakers passed a similar guardian program last year, but that bill only allowed trained school employees whose primary duties are outside of the classroom to be armed. Only 25 of the state’s 69 counties took advantage of that program, with most of the $67 million allocated for it going untouched. Senate Education Chair Manny Diaz, a Republican from Miami-Dade County, said on Wednesday that 12 other school districts are looking into becoming part of the guardian program this year.

 

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