Florida Senate votes to allow teachers to carry guns in school

House version of polarizing expansion of 'guardian' program still pending

By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida, Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In search of a solution that will prevent another school massacre, a sharply divided Florida Senate on Tuesday passed a wide-ranging school safety bill that includes a controversial provision aimed at adding armed teachers to the line of defense.

The Senate passed the bill on a 22-17 vote, with Democrats and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, opposed to the legislation’s expansion of the school “guardian” program to allow armed classroom teachers. The program was created last year and has allowed other school staff members to be armed if districts approve.

The issue prompted hours of discussion leading up to the final vote. 

The measure (SB 7030) includes recommendations made by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was formed by the Legislature last year after 17 students and faculty members were killed at the Parkland school.

Some of those recommendations include strengthening mental health services at schools across the state and improving communication between schools and law enforcement by enhancing districts' requirements to report incidents that pose threats on school premises or at off-campus school-sponsored events.

“This legislation continues our 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,” Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said in a statement after the vote.

While the Senate universally agreed those provisions of the bill were important, most of the debate Tuesday focused on the expansion of the guardian program.

The guardian program passed last year in the weeks after the Parkland tragedy, allows school staff to carry guns in school if they have a role outside the classroom, such as an athletic coach or administrator.

The bill passed Tuesday opens the program up to all teachers, regardless of other roles.

The Florida PTA surveyed 1,400 members statewide and nearly 78% said they do not want teachers to have guns.

Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who sponsored the bill, argued the guardian program is voluntary for local school districts, and that if they do opt in, guardians go through psychological evaluations, background screenings and training on how to handle active shooter situations.

“I am very fearful about changing the program this year,” Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said. “I worry about the logistics of this program. Do the teachers carry the gun on their person? What happens in recess? Will children be able to get it?”

Throughout the legislative process, Democrats tried to amend the bill to keep classroom teachers from participating in the guardian program and to give parents the option to pull their children from classes taught by armed teachers.

“The parents' rights are not being considered in this bill,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, said.

Taddeo’s proposal to give parents the choice to keep their children away from armed teachers proved tricky because guardians’ identities are meant to be kept secret.

While debating the bill, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, meticulously went over the details of the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and officials’ response to it, including how during the shooting, former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson did not enter the building.

“I will remind you that the shooting lasted 3 minutes and 43 seconds from first to last shot,” Book said.

As senators pondered how quickly lives were lost during the Parkland shooting, they also discussed how, a year later, two student survivors died of suicides. Sen. Kathleen Passidomo praised efforts in the bill to improve mental health services in schools. Last year, the Legislature gave school districts $69 million to address mental health, something Passidomo said is a “drop in the bucket.”

This year, the Senate has proposed a total of $100 million for mental health funding. Passidomo also worked to amend the bill to aid students in crisis, particularly those with suicidal tendencies and who are bullied, a provision she said was needed to help potential shooters.

“We want these students to be identified so they do not become monsters,” Passidomo, R-Naples, said.

A similar House bill (HB 7093) has moved through committees but has not come up on the House floor for a vote.

Bradford County undersheriff supports bill that would expand guardian program

The guardian program has been embraced in Bradford County.

"I want people that, if they have the desire and training to protect my child in that school, I want them to have that ability to do that," said Maj. Brad Smith, undersheriff of the Bradford County Sheriff's Office.

Smith has been deeply involved in implementing the guardian program in the county's schools over the last year. Thirteen people already working in the school district volunteered to carry a gun and be trained to respond to a school shooter on campus.

Very few people know who the guardians are in Bradford County because they’re trained to conceal their weapon, unless they’re protecting the school. Smith said that should extend to teachers, if they're willing. 

"You know, we'd developed to the belief that teachers if they want to be armed, they should be," he said. "So we started, you know, telling our state legislators that that's something that we would be strongly supportive."

All guardians in the state go through background checks and mental health evaluations. Each needs 132 hours of training. In Bradford County, they get 144 hours of training. That includes passing a firearms test that demands 85% accuracy, a higher standard than deputies right out of the police academy have to meet.

Guardians also get the same training as deputies on "retention," that is, how to keep possession of their firearm at all times. They’re also taught how to conceal their weapon through the right holster and the right clothing. 

In Smith’s opinion, adding more guardians even if, and perhaps especially because, they are teachers in the classroom, would save lives in a crisis.

"Now, we're trying to get the word out, 'Hey in Bradford County, if you come on our campus with the intent to do harm to any of our kids, we're going to kill you.' It's plain and simple," Smith said. "We are not going to sit back and allow somebody to attack our children until we can get in there with a full force complement of people. We’re going to send everything we've got until that assailant is stopped."

Smith said he completely understands and agrees with any teacher who does not want to carry a firearm. In those cases, he thinks teachers should be trained for advanced first aid and be able to save the lives of those who are injured.  

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