More than a year after the deadly Parkland, Florida, shooting, and after months of fierce debate, the state’s governor signed into law Wednesday a bill that allows teachers to carry guns at school.
The law expands the state’s “guardian” program, which was passed last year after the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead. The original guardian program allowed some school staffers to carry guns on campus. The expansion allows classroom teachers to be armed as well.
There are stipulations: School districts must approve the measure, teachers must volunteer for the program, and all participants are required to undergo a background check and psychiatric evaluation.
Armed teachers must also attend a gun-safety training course with a sheriff’s office.
The bill passed the Florida Senate in late April and the Florida House of Representatives last week, with elected officials voting largely along party lines. The program expansion came from recommendations made by a commission formed to investigate the Parkland shooting.
“We did a lot for public safety,” Republican Gov. Rick DeSantis said after the legislative session ended Saturday, reported The Associated Press. “The Marjory Stoneman Douglas bill people had disagreements on, but ultimately . . . I think we’re going to be safer.”
DeSantis signed the bill in private Wednesday and did not issue a statement, according to the AP.
Republican lawmakers pushed for the bill during this legislative session, though educators statewide and officials in Broward County, home to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including the sheriff, have rejected the program.
“Florida lawmakers claim they passed this bill for the victims and survivors of the shooting at Parkland, but they have ignored many concerns for student safety,” Sari Kaufman, a Parkland survivor and a volunteer with the Florida chapter of Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told the AP.
Kaufman added: “Now, I’m scared for the next generation of students who will grow up afraid of gun violence in their schools, not just from a shooter, but from the guns that could be carried by their teachers.”
Some Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that arming teachers might endanger students more than protect them, particularly students of color. In a particularly intense debate on the Florida House floor last week, Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones offered an amendment to the guardian expansion that would have required teachers and school staffers to undergo implicit bias training.
He cited concerns that a teacher may overreact and injure a student, then employ the state’s “stand your ground” defense.
“What happens when that teacher,” Jones asked, “feels threatened?”
Jones’ concern was met with backlash from Republican lawmakers who accused him of calling teachers racist.
“I asked for implicit bias training because we’re talking about black boys and girls who are getting murdered by police officers,” Jones responded. “There are bad police officers, and there are bad teachers. I never called them racist, but I’m giving you reality.”
Jones’ amendment failed, as did a number of other suggestions from Democrats.
In February, on the first anniversary of the Parkland shooting, Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, told MSNBC that arming teachers was the “wrong conversation” for lawmakers to be having when it comes to keeping children safe.
“What we know is that arming teachers in the state of Florida is not a real solution,” Ingram said. “We should be talking about mental health, we should be talking about school counselors, we should be talking about a psychiatrist, and we should be talking about the funding that it takes to actually make our schools safer.”
The News Service of Florida reported in February that the state had already invested millions of dollars into the guardian program, in which 25 sheriff’s offices were participating. The News Service obtained records that showed a $2 million bill for firearm supplies such as ammunition, weapons and gun holsters, and at least $3 million in spending for salaries and benefits of employees involved in the training process.
“This is another egregious example of the undue influence the gun lobby was given during the creation of the guardian program,” state Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat, told the News Service. “Every dollar spent by districts on firearms and ammunition is another state dollar not being put toward school hardening, mental health services and the hiring of SROs (school resource officers).”
The expanded guardian law does provide more resources for data collection about alarming occurrences at school, mental health services and information sharing between schools and districts about new students who have exhibited behavioral challenges.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler