Efforts to arm Florida teachers and other school employees to fight back against any schoolhouse attacks cleared another hurdle Tuesday in the state Legislature, overcoming objections from school groups that were vocal in their complaints.
The measure (HB 1097) was advanced by the House Judiciary Committee on an 11-7 vote as its supporters try to get it to the full House in the closing weeks of the 60-day legislative session.
Democrats voting against the bill were joined by Rep. Ray Pilon, a Sarasota Republican and retired law enforcement officer.
"I think before we start arming our teachers, and putting those in responsibility (of our children) in danger of perhaps being shot as well, that we need to debate it much more," Pilon said after the committee hearing.
The proposal would give public and private school principals the option to designate one or several school employees to carry concealed weapons on campus at all times. They would be required to complete the same training that's required of security guards in addition to the statewide firearms training. Principals could also decline the concealed weapons option altogether.
Rep. Greg Steube, the bill's lead sponsor, said arming teachers and other employees would give schools "a fighting chance" against intruders.
"At least allow people to have the opportunity to defend themselves," he said. "Because right now they can't."
Many Florida schools, especially elementary schools, aren't protected by school resource officers due to insufficient funding, Steube said. Arming selected school staff is a reasonable approach, he said, because many shootings are over within five to 15 minutes, meaning law enforcement would be unlikely to reach many schools in time to intervene, especially in rural areas.
The bill's opponents included groups representing Florida school boards and school administrators. Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said arming school staff would send the wrong message to impressionable students.
"They will say, 'Coach has a gun, why can't I have a gun?'" he said. "My teacher has a gun, I'll carry a gun, too.'"
Blanton said school boards support having police officers posted at schools. He said it's the goal of school boards across Florida to have an officer assigned to every school, with a marked squad car parked in front of the school.
The bill also drew a skeptical response when the issue arose earlier Tuesday during a meeting of the State Board of Education.
Bay County schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt said one of his biggest fears would be that a student would wrestle a gun away from a teacher.
"When you put a gun on campus, there are a lot of bad things that can happen," he said.
Paul Hackenberry, whose long career in security included a 28-year stint in the Secret Service, told the education board that arming teachers would be a mistake. Hackenberry, a teacher himself years ago, was invited to speak to the board about school security issues.
He said that proper training goes well beyond handling a weapon to include sessions on when it's justifiable to open fire.
"That judgment is a life-and-death decision, and you can't ever take it back once you pull the trigger," he said.
Afterward, State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand sounded deeply skeptical about arming school personnel.
"It doesn't sound like a very good idea to me," he said.
Chartrand said the board wants state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to put together a task force to look into developing minimum safety standards for schools. Responsibility for school safety is largely left to local districts, but the state board has a responsibility to provide basic guidelines, Chartrand said.
Steube said that school employees designated to carry weapons would go through at least 40 hours of classroom training that would prepare them to respond appropriately to emergency situations. They also would undergo firearms training each year.
The bill leaves it up to school principals to decide whether to arm someone and who would be the right person.
"I would think the principal would know what is best for his or her school," he said.
The bill would allow no one to carry a gun on campus, except the principal's designee who has completed the proper training. That person would be required to carry the firearm on them at all times. The principal would determine whether to tell parents who that person is.
A similar bill introduced the Senate hasn't made any headway, with less than three weeks left in the session.
Steube said he hoped the bill's progress in the House can persuade Senate leaders to take it up in the GOP-controlled Legislature.