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Florida Appeals Court Eyes Armed School ‘Guardians’

Emily Michot
Miami Herald
A 2018 photo of armed guardians training to protect Broward elementary schools.

TALLAHASSEE --- A controversial state program that allows school “guardians” to carry guns on campus came under scrutiny Tuesday, as an appeals court heard arguments in a legal challenge to Duval County’s “school safety assistants.”

In a lawsuit filed in 2018, a handful of public school students, their parents and the League of Women Voters of Florida alleged that the program runs afoul of a longstanding state law banning people who aren’t law enforcement officials from bringing guns to schools.

Duval County school officials, however, argued that a state law passed in the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland created an exemption for school guardians, who may be school employees, private security guards or law enforcement officers.

Siding with the school board in December, Duval County Circuit Judge Robert Dees acknowledged that school guardians are not included in exceptions to Florida law allowing firearms on school campuses.

But he found that the 2018 law authorizing guardians “in support of school-sanctioned activities” allowed school safety officers to be armed.

Plaintiffs in the case appealed Dees’ decision, and a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal heard arguments Tuesday.

School-safety laws passed in 2018 and amended in 2019 don’t specifically authorize school guardians to carry weapons, Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Rachel Miller-Ziegler, who represents the plaintiffs, argued Tuesday.

The plaintiffs are relying in part on a provision in Florida law that prohibits people from possessing any firearm or other weapon, “including a razor blade or box cutter, except as authorized in support of school-sanctioned activities.”

The exception for “school-sanctioned activities” for school-safety officers applies only to box cutters and razor blades, not to guns, Miller-Ziegler argued Tuesday.

“This is a case about straightforwardly applying the statutes that the Legislature wrote,” Miller-Ziegler said, “rather than about trying to discern what policy choices the Legislature might have wanted to enact.”

But Judge Timothy Osterhaus was skeptical.

“I mean, come on, really,” he said, pointing out that her interpretation would mean that the law authorizes box cutters but not guns for someone who has “more shooting training than somebody” who served in Vietnam. “It goes a little bit beyond box cutters.”

“The only evidence of what we have of what the Legislature meant to do is the text that they chose,” Miller-Ziegler replied.

Sonja Harrell, who represents the school board, argued that lawmakers intended that school guardians be armed, saying the plaintiffs were “cherry-picking” legislative language to support their position.

Other provisions in the law clearly indicate that the school guardians would be carrying firearms, Harrell said.

The law includes a provision about “pistol shooting, not box cutter use, not razor blades,” Harrell said, as well as “inspections of their weapons, not their box cutters.”

“They have to report a discharge of a firearm in the performance of his or her duties. That right there contemplates that these school guardians are going to be using firearms in their performance of their duties,” she argued. “To go through all that training by the sheriff … and then only allow them to have box cutters would not be a reasonable construction of the statute.”

But Judge Scott Makar said the Legislature “could have made this clear and they didn’t.”

The result is a “compendium of statues” that includes a law that gives “clues about” lawmakers’ intent, the judge said.

“It’s almost like if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, well maybe it’s a duck, but the Legislature didn’t actually say that specifically,” Makar said.

In an appeal filed in March, lawyers for the parents and students argued that Dees erred in finding the Legislature “silently implied authorization of what it has long criminalized.”

“The statutory law of this state is what the Legislature wrote --- no more, no less,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote. “So unless and until the Legislature sees fit to provide that this longstanding statute does not apply to so-called ‘school guardians’ such as SSAs (school safety assistants), the courts must apply the law as written and the (school) board must follow it.”

But the Duval County School Board’s lawyers argued in a response that its “school safety assistants” program complies with state law and therefore the assistants are allowed to carry firearms on campus.

The school officials pointed out that, under the law, guardians must undergo “a significant amount of firearms training” and have concealed weapons licenses. The law also requires any discharge of a firearm by a school guardian to be reported to the local sheriff and state education officials.

“These statutory requirements would be unnecessary if the Legislature did not intend school guardians to use firearms in the course of their duties,” the school board’s lawyers argued.

Dara Kam / News Service of Florida
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