‘Guardian' expansion draws heavy debate

By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - More than a year after the Parkland high school shooting, emotions continue to run high at the Florida Capitol as lawmakers consider school-safety proposals that would expand a controversial “school guardian” program and allow trained teachers to be armed.

The House Education Committee on Thursday approved its version of the bill (PCB EDC 19-02) along party lines, following heated back-and-forth between Republican lawmakers who support the guardian program and teachers who testified that they oppose having colleagues carry guns.

The bill includes other changes to try to bolster school safety, but the hour-and-a-half debate primarily focused on the proposal that would broaden the guardian program, which is voluntary for school districts.

Lawmakers rushed last year to pass a wide-ranging school safety bill after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. As part of the law, school employees whose primary duties are outside classrooms can be designated as guardians.

The House bill debated Thursday and a Senate version (SB 7030) would expand the program to allow classroom teachers to serve as guardians.

Also under the proposal, some training requirements for the program would change. Guardians would be able to get trained by police academies and the school districts that employ them, not just by local sheriff’s offices. The total number of hours for training also would increase from 132 to 144 under the proposal.

“I would say that the teachers who choose to apply for this program, who choose to go through this training are going to be those types of individuals that no matter what happens at that school they are going to risk their lives for the good of others,” said House Education Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, a Mount Dora Republican leading the effort to pass the House bill.

Sullivan said it would be unfair to not trust those people if they qualify to be trained and to carry guns in schools. Supporters of the guardian program say it helps protect against active-shooter situations.

“The more people who are there to defend students, to defend other teachers, the better,” Sullivan said.

However, Democrats protested against expanding the guardian program, with some arguing that there is no evidence it is effective. Fewer than half of the 67 school districts have decided to use guardians this year.

“I just believe we need to give this another study, or give it another year, to be able to see how the 26 school districts who have already passed this measure to see what type of results and data they have to move forward,” state Rep. James Bush, D-Miami, said.

A number of teachers also protested against expanding the program because they said it would put minority students at higher risk, prompting two Republicans lawmakers to question one teacher about whether she believed teachers were racists or Islamophobic.

“Arming teachers who are on the clock to teach, not in attack mode, places us and our students at an increased risk of being killed,” said Grieta Patenaude, a Tampa teacher at Robinson High School, adding that her classroom has Muslim, black and Latino students.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, asked Patenaude if she believed she worked with racist teachers.

“Are you stating here, publicly, that you believe the other teachers you work with are racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic because you have students of different background in your classroom, and a result of that, they can’t be trusted?” Fine said.

“I think that exists in every population,” Patenaude said. “That is just part of society.”

Amid the debate of the guardian program, Sullivan urged the public and her colleagues to also pay attention to other provisions in the bill that would give districts greater flexibility to put in place more school-safety measures. Many of these proposals were recommended by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was created by the Legislature last year to help identify improvements that can make students safer.

One of those changes would require better information-sharing between schools, requiring all schools to transfer student records, including mental-health and behavioral records, within a day or two depending on whether students are transferring within or outside districts.

The bill would also allow superintendents, school board members or school personnel to be fined an unspecified amount if they do not comply with reporting requirements related to discipline and safety incidents that occur on school grounds involving students and non-students.

A mental-health component in the bill was popular among Republicans and Democrats on the House panel. The measure would give schools 45 days to screen students referred for mental assistance and require schools to intervene within a month of the screening until the students receive community-based care. The intervention plan would follow the students if they transfer schools, according to the bill.

A Senate committee was scheduled to hear the Senate version of the bill Wednesday but ran out of time. That bill will be considered on Tuesday.

News Service of Florida