Gov. DeSantis signs bill allowing arming willing teachers

Wide-ranging bill also increases funding for mental health, school hardening

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed legislation that expands the controversial school “guardian” program to allow armed classroom teachers.

DeSantis’ office announced the signing shortly after 6 p.m. without ceremony or comments about the bill, which was widely backed by House and Senate Republicans and heavily opposed by gun-control activists, Democrats and some students who survived the mass shooting last year at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The governor signed the bill (SB 7030) hours after it was sent to his desk.

Earlier in the week, DeSantis praised the Legislature for implementing “dozens of school safety recommendations” made by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, noting the recommendations included expansion of the guardian program. The Legislature formed the commission last year to investigate the February 2018 shooting and recommend ways to make schools safer.

Other changes included in the wide-ranging bill will put $75 million into school mental-health services, strengthen reporting requirements for potentially threatening incidents that happen on school premises, improve information-sharing between school districts on students with behavioral issues and continue investment in a tool that assists with school emergencies.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, issued a statement Wednesday night thanking DeSantis for signing the bill.

“By implementing the recommendations of the commission, this legislation continues efforts to proactively enhance coordination between education, law enforcement, and community mental health resources to ensure at-risk students receive the help they need before a tragedy occurs,” Galvano said in the statement. “The bill also sets forth a plan to help school districts implement the security and school hardening provisions of the legislation we passed last year in an expedited manner to help prevent those who would seek to harm our children from gaining access to our schools.”

Lawmakers praised most parts of the bill but were sharply divided on the expansion of the guardian program to allow districts to have armed teachers. When the guardian program was created last year, it was geared toward school staff members whose main duties were outside the classroom. The only classroom teachers who could volunteer to participate in the program had to double in other positions, such as serving as coaches, administrators or cafeteria employees.

The program is voluntary for school districts and employees. Currently, 30 of Florida’s 67 school districts have decided to allow trained and armed school staff members.

Under the bill signed Wednesday, classroom teachers can volunteer to participate if their districts allow it. The teachers will get one-time $500 stipends.

“Currently, no districts have indicated to us that they are allowing classroom teachers to participate,” said Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Education.

Starting Oct. 1, districts will have the option to arm teachers who volunteer and have undergone a psychological evaluation, background check and completed 144 hours of training.

While appreciative of the extra funds, Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said part of the challenge now will be finding enough staff for mental health positions.

“And not just people who can provide those services, but we want high-quality people, people who are certainly experienced,” Messina said.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has staunchly opposed the change and said its focus now shifts to the local level.

"We want to put the pressure on our school board members and make sure that our super superintendents understand what the position of our educators is and that position is not to have a gun in school and we don't want to carry," said FEA President Fedrick Ingram.

DeSantis followed through with his promise to sign the school safety legislation, despite about a dozen activists with two gun-control advocacy groups who dropped off a stack of papers with 13,000 signatures at DeSantis’ office Tuesday and urged him to veto the bill.

DeSantis on Thursday touted a major education bill that includes creating a controversial school-vouchers program.

DeSantis, flanked by key lawmakers, appeared Thursday morning at Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville and at Mount Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg and was scheduled in the afternoon to go to William A. Kirlew Junior Academy in Miami Gardens, where he planned to hold a bill-signing ceremony.