TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A Senate proposal that would boost school safety and expand a controversial school “guardian” program moved forward Tuesday despite continued backlash from teachers and students.
Alyson Sheehy, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, was among the many speakers who opposed the proposal. In tears, she revisited her first-hand experience from the mass shooting in February 2018 at her school and pleaded with lawmakers to not expand the “guardian” program to allow armed teachers.
She also referred to the suicides this month of a 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduate and a current student at the school.
“Now we’re here, over a year since the worst day of my life. As of last week, two more students -- friends -- died … Teachers’ focus should be on education, the job they signed up for,” Sheehy said.
After emotional testimony and debate that lasted nearly two hours, the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee approved the proposal (SB 7030) with added language that would make it a third-degree felony to impersonate a school guardian.
Lawmakers rushed last year to pass a major school-safety bill after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Valentine’s Day. While the bill was wide ranging, the issue of arming school employees drew heavy debate.
In the end, lawmakers allowed trained school employees whose primary duties are outside the classroom to be armed guardians. Fewer than half of the state’s school districts have decided to use such guardians, but Senate and House Republicans want to expand the program to also allow trained teachers to be armed.
The 5-3 vote Tuesday in the Senate committee, which was along party lines, came after the panel rejected proposals from Democrats, including one by Sen Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, that would have allowed parents to pull their children from classrooms with armed teachers.
Lawmakers also mulled ways to identity school guardians. Some of the informal options ranged from having guardians wear yellow T-shirts to ensuring their identities are not publicly shared. Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, suggested putting up signs in front of schools stating they participate in the guardian program.
While most of the focus has been on the guardian program, the proposal would bring a variety of changes to school safety measures.
That would include changes to a multi-agency network that provides at-risk children better access to mental-illness and behavioral programs. The bill would also create a “behavioral threat assessment instrument” and database that all public schools may use. It would address potential threats and students’ “evaluation, early intervention, and student support.”
The Senate bill still needs approval from the Appropriations Committee before it could reach the Senate floor. Also, a Senate budget proposal would allow an unused $57 million from the “guardian” program this year to be used to train and arm guardians for the upcoming 2019-2020 fiscal year.
The House Appropriations Committee is set to consider its version of the school safety bill (HB 7093) on Wednesday, the bill’s last stop before it can go to the full House.
News Service of Florida