Florida moves one step closer to arming classroom teachers

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With COVID-19 cases still surging, students may -- or may not --be filling up classrooms as the new academic year begins. Credit: Pixabay.

Kyle Savage, an elementary school teacher from Brevard County, said he served as a military police officer in the U.S. Army, participating in  service missions where he accompanied foreign dignitaries, Congressional delegations and other officials on trips in the Middle East.

“I am also the classroom teacher who has no interest in carrying a weapon,” Savage said.

Kyle Savage
Brevard elementary teacher Kyle Savage

Savage, and other teachers and advocates came to the Capitol Thursday to urge lawmakers not to allow classroom teachers to have guns at school.

But they lost the fight, at least for today.

A bill (SB 7030) that would give the state’s 67 school districts the option of including classroom teachers in an armed “guardian” program is now ready for consideration in the full Senate. Current law excludes classroom teachers from being armed at school.

The measure, part of a major package of school safety initiatives, cleared its last committee when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved it in a 11-9 vote on Thursday.

The bill incorporates recommendations from a statewide task force that reviewed school safety challenges in the wake of the February 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. Seventeen students and staff members were killed in the incident.

“This bill is a good bill. This bill does a lot to keep kids in our communities safe,” said Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat who served on the task force and recited the names of the victims.

Committee members were supportive of most of the bill’s provisions, including efforts to improve school mental-health services, the reporting of safety incidents on campuses and the evaluation of threat assessments. There are also provisions to improve the security, or “hardening,” of school campuses.

But the legislation contains the controversial measure that would eliminate the current prohibition against arming classroom teachers as part of the guardian program.

Some 25 school districts are now using guardians to replace or supplement security that was previously provided by trained law-enforcement officers.

The proposal would let local school boards decide whether to participate in the guardian program and whether to allow teachers to become armed guardians. The teachers would participate on a volunteer basis.

The guardians would be trained under the supervision of local sheriffs. And their training would include at least 132 hours of firearm-safety training, as well as a mental health evaluation and a background check.

Sen. Manny Diaz, the Miami-Dade County Republican who is sponsoring the legislation, stressed the ability of local school districts to decide on the guardian program. He said it would provide more flexibility across the state, which includes large urban school districts as well as rural school systems.

“It comes down to one word and that word is optional,” Diaz said. “We are not passing a bill here today, or presenting a bill here today, that forces any teacher to be armed.  We are not forcing any district to implement any armed program.”

But the committee heard from a host of teachers and other education advocates opposed to bringing guns into classrooms.

Linda Edson, of the Florida Retired Educators Association, told senators that she asked parents, teachers, business owners, health professionals and law enforcement officials about the concept of allowing classroom teachers to be armed at school.

The law enforcement officials supported the legislation. But all the other people she asked said it was the “craziest bill” they’d ever heard of, Edson said.

Speakers from the League of Women Voters of Florida as well as the Florida PTA told lawmakers they were opposed to arming classroom teachers.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami-Dade Democrat who opposed the bill, reminded senators that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students came to the state Capitol last week to express their views on the legislation.

“And the main thing they said was: ‘Don’t arm the teachers.’ And we’re going to do it anyway,” Braynon said.

“Putting a gun into a space where a child is supposed to feel safe is counterintuitive to what we’re trying to accomplish in this great bill.”

While the bill now moves to the full Senate, a similar House measure (HB 7093) is awaiting a vote in that chamber.

The Florida Education Association — the statewide teacher’s union — wasn’t happy about the legislation.

“We think this issue is a real Pandora’s box that has the potential to release all kinds of trouble into our schools — firearm accidents, guns lost or stolen, injuries to unintended targets. Guns and kids don’t mix,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram.

The union said that making schools safe involves investing money to ensure every school has a resource officer and a sufficient number of trained mental health professionals such as guidance counselors, school psychologists and social workers.

Phoenix reporter Diane Rado contributed to this report


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