Florida lawmakers appear poised to pass legislation that would allow public and charter school teachers to be armed in classrooms across the state.
Last week, the state Senate okayed a bill that expands a school security plan put in place after last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The House is likely to pass the measure this week.
But just because the bill allows Florida teachers to be armed doesn’t mean they will be. That’s because the legislation permits local school boards to make decisions about whether to arm teachers — and many have already objected.
On The Florida Roundup Friday, representatives from Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, and Lake County, which is north of Orlando, said their districts would not be arming teachers.
Tamara Shamburger of Hillsborough County Public Schools said the idea is “not a good fit” for Hillsborough. And Bill Mathias of the Lake County school board supports the proposal but said there’s plenty of security in his county already.
Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018, state lawmakers passed a comprehensive school-safety bill that included the creation of a guardian program to allow some school personnel to be armed.
Administrators, support staff and professionals who do not work exclusively in classrooms — such as coaches — are eligible and must pass an interview, background check, drug screening, psychological evaluation and in-depth discussion with the principal. Guardians undergo 144 hours of training.
Many school districts have declined to create guardian programs. So far, just 25 of the 67 school districts in Florida have approved participating in the program, many in rural parts of the state.
Those that declined had to put a law enforcement officer in every school, which is more costly.
Earlier this year, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was created as a result of last year’s legislation, recommended that the state expand the program to allow armed teachers.
Senate Bill 7030 and House Bill 7093 would make teachers eligible if they’re in school districts that approve. Teachers that object would be exempt. Those who volunteer would be required to undergo the same training that the current guardians go through. Districts would also set their own policies about how and where teachers’ guns are stored on school property.
“This allows school districts to add those classroom educators into the pool of guardian-eligible participants and allow them to go through the same process a guardian would go through,” said Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the Parkland school shooting, and who supports the measure. “School districts need the flexibility to choose as they figure out for themselves what’s the best way to protect kids in their districts.”
State Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat whose district covers parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, voted against the legislation. He said on The Florida Roundup that he fundamentally disagrees with the idea to arm teachers, adding that the legislation does not make sense in many inner city schools and communities of color that are “dealing with gun violence everyday.”
“Some unfortunately see someone get shot regularly, I unfortunately have to deal with parents who have lost children often because this gun violence is prevalent in my community,” Braynon said. “A gun being in a classroom, however it is that they’re planning to do it … just the concept brings a different environment for those children.”
Petty stressed that the bill mandates school districts have choice and argued that schools in rural counties especially stand to benefit from the possibility to arm teachers.
In these counties, “it may be several minutes before additional official law enforcement can come on,” he said. “And as we’ve seen in these incidents, the quicker you can take the fight to the bad guy, the quicker you can stop this and the stop the loss of life.”
But Braynon pointed out some counties have both rural and urban schools — such as Duval. “And you have to make a policy for one or the other,” he said.
Duval has adopted a guardian program, but voted last year to oppose arming school staff.
At least 14 states arm teachers. Another 16 give local school boards the authority to decide whether school staff can carry guns.
In Florida, the state teachers union opposes arming teachers, as does the Florida PTA.
A number of Florida counties have already held votes to make official their opposition to arming teachers. Many have put in place extensive security measures following the mass shooting at Parkland.
In Hillsborough, for instance, the county relies on a 300-member school security team, all guardian trained (or in the process of completing the training).
“We are able to allow the trained professionals to do their jobs and be the ones with the guns and allow teachers to do what they want to do, which is teach,” said Shamburger, the chairwoman of the board of education of Hillsborough. “If arming teachers is necessary and it works for other districts, then so be it. In Hillsborough this is not the best option for us.”
Shamburger said “hardening schools and taking whatever measures necessary to preventing attacks is critical,” and called for “better legislation” from the state Capitol. “Adding more guns simply does not do it,” she added.
Mathias, a school board member in Lake County, supports the bill and lauded the legislature’s move to give local districts more control. He said some of the schools in his district are up to 15 minutes away from a police station, and that having armed school personnel is an effective way to stop a shooter. But, he said, “Lake County is not considering arming teachers.”
Following the shooting at Parkland, Lake County implemented the guardian program and now counts on 29 guardians. The county also has a law enforcement officer at every school.
“We are very comfortable with where we are right now,” he said.
Counties that have implemented a guardian program include: Bay, Bradford, Brevard, Broward, Clay, Duval, Gilchrist, Hendry, Hillsborough, Holmes, Lafayette, Lake, Levy, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Nassau, Okeechobee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, Suwanee and Volusia.