Lawmakers could allow armed teachers in schools

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Hurriedly crafted state legislation to address last week’s mass shooting at a Parkland high school will include a controversial element that would allow teachers who’ve undergone special training to bring guns to schools, a concept that has divided Republican politicians and faces opposition from Democrats and educators.

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron are both floating the idea, which President Donald Trump on Thursday said he endorsed. The House and Senate, along with Gov. Rick Scott, are expected to roll out their proposals Friday.

During a school safety summit at the White House, Trump said he wants something akin to a concealed weapons license for teachers to allow “certain highly adept people” who “understand weaponry, guns” to be able to carry firearms at schools.

State lawmakers are scrambling to propose broad packages focused on mental health and guns, following the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 14 students and three faculty members dead.

On Thursday, Trump also tossed out the idea of a “little bit of a bonus” for teachers who have a concealed-carry license, according to a pool media report of the event, attended by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

"You can't hire enough security guards. … But you could have concealed on the teachers," he said.

But at a CNN town hall meeting Wednesday night in Broward County, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told an audience of teachers, students and parents affiliated with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School he thought arming educators was a bad idea.

“I don’t support that,” Rubio said.

Republican leaders in the state House and Senate on Thursday said their plans would go farther than a simple concealed weapons license for educators.

Teachers, administrators or other school personnel would have to participate in 132 hours of training, undergo mental-health screenings and be authorized by local sheriffs to serve as what would essentially be a school “marshal,” Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican taking the lead on crafting the Senate measure, told The News Service of Florida.

“What we’re talking about is a program specifically designed and conducted through the sheriff’s office,” said Galvano, who is slated to take over as Senate president after the November elections.

The armed personnel would serve as supplements to school resource officers, Galvano said, and would operate under the auspices of the sheriff’s office.

“And their actions are going to be owned by that sheriff’s office. It’s not the bill that says. ‘let a teacher with a (concealed weapons) permit bring that gun to school.’ That’s a lot looser, and I don’t support that,” he said.

The proposal is based on a program initiated by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd that enables authorized and trained employees at the private Southeastern University in Lakeland to carry concealed firearms to respond to assailants on campus as a last step.

House Rules & Policy Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told the News Service his chamber’s plan also will include a similar element.

“It isn’t nearly as ominous as it sounds. It is a tremendous deterrent for someone to go into a school knowing people are armed and they don’t know who is armed,” Oliva said, adding that the measure would require “extensive training” and “all sorts of screening.”

But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who made the rounds in the state Capitol on Thursday after appearing at the town hall Wednesday with Rubio and Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch, said allowing guns in schools is a terrible idea.

“When a killer comes in with an assault rifle, that is not a fair fight. That is not a fair firefight from a pistol to a semi-automatic assault rifle,” Nelson, a Democrat who could face a re-election challenge from Scott this year, told reporters Thursday.

During Wednesday’s town hall meeting, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High teacher Ashley Kurth, who sheltered dozens of students during last week’s attack and is a gun owner, raised a number of concerns about the prospect, including the possibility of law enforcement confusing armed teachers with shooters.

The Florida Education Association teachers union also objects to the prospect, saying in a statement that it is committed to legislation that “ensures student safety and limits firearms on school campuses to highly trained professional law enforcement personnel.”

That doesn’t include deputized teachers, FEA spokeswoman Sharon Nesvig said in an email.

“More guns on campus will create more problems,” she said.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, also said he doesn’t want armed teachers at schools.

“I’m OK with using retired law enforcement or retired military, obviously with the right training and credentials, to make sure we secure our schools. But having our teachers to be armed, I don’t think that’s the right approach,” Garcia said in an interview.

Last week’s shooting has reopened the already highly charged debate over gun control, with students, parents and teachers from the Broward County high school demanding action. More than 100 students from the school visited the Capitol on Wednesday, meeting with Scott, Negron, Corcoran and dozens of lawmakers and holding a rally in which they pleaded for legislation that would make them feel safe again.

Nineteen-year-old gunman Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in the deaths, used an assault-style gun to shoot down students and faculty at the school, which he had attended in the past.

The fact that Cruz, who had a lengthy history of documented mental-health issues, was able at age 18 to legally purchase a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle to commit the murders --- with no waiting period --- has prompted survivors of the shooting, and their parents, to push lawmakers to ban assault weapons.

In Florida instead, lawmakers are focused on potentially raising the age to 21 and imposing a waiting period for the purchase of long guns. That would be similar to requirements for handguns.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has usually been aligned with the National Rifle Association on gun laws, but it could part ways with the gun-rights organization on the age limits, if the proposal ultimately passes.

“Passing a law that makes it illegal for a 20-year-old to purchase a shotgun for hunting or an adult single mother from purchasing the most effective self-defense rifle on the market punishes law-abiding citizens for the evil acts of criminals,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in a statement Thursday.

Galvano said raising the age limit will be included in the Senate plan.

Packages now in development by the House, Senate and Scott are also likely to focus on early screening for mental health problems, increased funding for mental health services and better coordination between law enforcement, schools and mental health providers.

State officials also are exploring ways to keep guns away from people who have demonstrated they are dangerous to themselves or others. The Senate measure, for example, will include enhanced background screening for gun purchases, according to Galvano.

Nelson told Senate Democrats on Thursday to “get what they can get” as they continue to push for stricter gun laws.

But state Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon said the gun-related elements don’t go far enough.

“It’s such a big issue for us, and it has been for so many years,” Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said. “It’s a little frustrating that I’m expected to give credit to Republican leadership for coming half, not even halfway, on an issue that we’ve been saying is a problem, for decades.”

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