Betty Jo Soto walked out of jail flanked by television reporters Monday night, after posting $500 bail. She covered her face with pieces of white paper, mostly ignoring the barrage of questions about why she brought a loaded gun and two knives to her fourth grade classroom at Starkey Elementary School.
Then she uttered four words captured in a video by WFLA Channel 8: "Ask DeSantis. Your governor."
Two weeks ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a widely debated bill that will allow Florida's school districts to let teachers carry guns as soon as October. Though Pinellas school officials have said they plan to opt out of the program, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri supports it. He is set to present his position to the School Board next week.
Soto, 49, has made no other public statements on her arrest and immediate firing. She did not return three phone calls, a text or an email from the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. When a reporter visited her home, no one answered the door. A Facebook page with her name and photo was deactivated.
Hired by the district in August 2016, Soto was recently informed by Starkey principal Audrey Chaffin that she would not have a job at the Seminole school next year. Chaffin delivered the news in person, according to the district, which subsequently sent the teacher a letter on April 25 to say her contract would not be renewed.
Soto's last day was set for May 31, according to an email she sent to a Times reporter Monday morning, about two hours before the start of school. She wrote about "retaliation" spilling over from her last job at St. Petersburg's John Hopkins Middle School, where she spoke out against now-removed principal Dallas Jackson.
Chaffin "lied on my evaluations and she set me up," Soto's email read. "I believe I was set up."
Less than five hours after the email, Starkey's principal called law enforcement to say Soto was exhibiting "suspicious behavior," Pinellas school district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf-Chason said. Officers searched a backpack she had been carrying around all morning to find a Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol loaded with seven bullets. They also discovered a 6-inch fighting knife in her pocket and a 2-inch finger push knife in her backpack strap.
Though Soto has a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, state law does not allow her to carry such weapons on a school campus. Even under the new legislation signed by DeSantis this month, no teacher is permitted to carry a gun on campus unless it is approved by the local school board and they are screened and trained by a sheriff’s office.
The teacher "offered no explanation as to why she brought the weapons," Wolf-Chason said.
Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego was not available for comment. School Board Chairwoman Rene Flowers did not return a call for comment.
Member Eileen Long said in a phone interview that Soto's actions left her "horrified."
"I am so against arming teachers," Long said. "But if this was a political statement, she went about it all wrong."
Bill Dudley was the only other school official to comment on Soto's arrest, saying that despite the new state law, Pinellas has made no moves to change its policy on arming teachers.
"We have not implemented that and so until such a time, the policy in place has to be followed," Dudley said. "I would hope that somebody wouldn't do something like this to politicize the situation. God knows we have enough of that stuff going on."
Long and Dudley, both former teachers, said they will be open-minded when the sheriff makes his presentation on arming teachers next week. But Long seemed more hesitant.
"I have to give the sheriff an opportunity to explain his side, where I can ask him questions," she said. "But I just don't think there's anything that he could say to me that would change my mind."
Lawrence Clermont, president of Pinellas' Parent-Teacher Association, took a similar stance. He said the group is "adamant" that law enforcement be the only armed individuals in the county's schools.
"The most effective day-to-day school climate is gun-free, which includes not arming teachers and administrators," he said.
In a recorded phone call to parents Monday, Chaffin, the Starkey principal, said Soto will not return to the school "in any capacity." Her classroom will be taken over by someone else.
Pinellas teachers union president Mike Gandolfo called Soto’s actions an "isolated incident." He added: "The pressure teachers are under, especially when they can be non-renewed at any time, causes a lot of people to do things they normally would not do."
Pinellas parent Michael Hertzman said in an email to the Times that regardless of the reason, Soto bringing a gun to school serves as an example of "lawful and unlawful getting crossed in the blink of an eye." His 6-year-old son, Matthew, is in kindergarten at Shore Acres Elementary in St. Petersburg.
"Even though it is illegal to do so, a licensed gun carrier brought a gun to school," he wrote. "A lawful gun owner and trusted guardian became a threat to our schoolchildren in one simple morning."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.