Passing a bill is one thing. Making it work in the real world is another.
A new law signed this week by Gov. Ron DeSantis allows Florida teachers to carry handguns in the classroom. But state and local officials have yet to work out all the details on how it will be implemented.
What kinds of guns will be allowed? How should they be displayed or stored? Who will be allowed to have one? Even though school districts in the Tampa Bay area have decided not to participate in the program, teachers, parents and students have been asking.
To get a better sense for how the law will be enacted, the Tampa Bay Times interviewed law enforcement officials, school leaders and lawmakers who either backed the legislation, have expertise in school security, or both. Here is what they said:
Will the public know which teachers are carrying guns?
Probably not. And the consensus is that they will conceal their weapons.
“To be honest, you don’t want anyone knowing who’s conceal-carrying and who’s not,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, a Collier County Republican who supported the bill. “So the active shooter doesn’t just go into a school knowing what building to go into so they say, ‘that building is all right and that one isn’t.’ It’s a security measure. It’s not something you want for public consumption, to file an information request under the Florida sunshine law.
Active shooters are mentally unbalanced, Donalds said. “But they’re not stupid. They are not going to a police precinct. They are going places where there will be little to no resistance.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chaired a fact-finding commission following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and was a strong advocate of the new law, said this: “If it’s done right, done correctly, done prudently, you and everybody else will not know what it looks like, and you shouldn’t know what it looks like.”
He added: “It should not be obvious or known to anybody who these individuals are, that force multiplier that is necessary to ensure that when one of these incidents occurs — and it will occur again, the question is when and where — that there is somebody in a position to stop it as soon as it starts.”
The Pinellas County School Board has not endorsed the new provision allowing teachers to be armed, nor has Hillsborough County, which maintains its own large school security force. The same is true of Pasco, Hernando, Manatee and Polk counties.
But John Newman, chief of the Hillsborough’s school security department, has been watching the issue closely.
Newman said he is not completely sold on the idea of anonymity for the guardians. “As a parent, I think I’d want to know if somebody’s armed,” he said.
And both he and Gualtieri said it will be important to find a way for the guardians to identify themselves in case of a crisis, so they are not shot by uniformed police.
“We don’t hide it, we put ours in uniform,” Newman said. “As a practitioner, I just want to know, if I’m a cop or a deputy showing up to a campus and you’re a teacher that’s been guardian-certified, how am I going to know that? And those things have to get vetted out.”
Gualtieri cautioned against letting other teachers know who the guardians are. A situation could arise, he said, in which the other teachers would urge the guardian to draw his weapon when it was not safe to do so.
But that level of discretion might not be realistic. “In my experience around teachers and cops, they can’t keep secrets. You’re going to know,” Newman said. “Think about a campus and how tight that family is.”
Baker County is one place where the School Board has endorsed the expanded guardian program, making it possible that some teachers will be armed in the coming school year.
David Crawford, that district’s director of auxiliary services and school safety, issued a statement about the need to protect student lives, but declined to answer questions about how the law will be implemented. “We will have the guardian program in place at each of our schools whenever school begins for the 2019-20 school year,” he said several times in an interview.
What happens if parents want to take their children out of schools or classrooms where teachers are armed?
While some lawmakers wanted to amend the bill to include an opt-out clause, they were unsuccessful.
Crawford, in Baker County, said this when asked about parents who try to opt out: “We’re going to tell them the guardian program is in place in all of our schools.”
Asked if he envisioned an opt-out system, Gualtieri said, “No.”
What kind of gun would the guardians carry, and how would it be secured?
Newman and Gualtieri suggested small, semi-automatic weapons — a 9mm pistol or a 380-caliber handgun. A revolver won’t do, Newman said, because it does not have enough rounds.
“Small, lightweight, very, very easily concealed,” Gualtieri said. And on the teacher’s body, not locked in drawer. “From somebody who carries one all the time, it’s second nature. You don’t even feel it anymore. It’s like having a wallet in your pocket.”
But the teacher would not just slip the gun into his or her pocket.
Both stressed the importance of a retention holster. That piece of equipment is important, as it means the gun can be removed only by the wearer. It cannot fall out and a student cannot grab it. “Unless you know the mechanics of that holster, you can’t get it out,” Gualtieri said.
I can think of some teachers I wouldn’t want to be around if they had a gun. Should I be worried?
You shouldn’t be, as the law already calls for thorough screening, officials said.
“Just because they apply, doesn’t mean we’re going to accept them,” Gualtieri said. “If they think they have the right mindset and skills, they then go through a very rigorous background process including polygraph, drug screen, psychological, all the things we do with a cop.”
He added: “Absolutely, people say to me, ‘Well, I know so and so, this person, that person, a teacher, and I don’t want them carrying a gun.’ If I met them, I probably would agree with them.”
He added that this fear — that guns will be given to people who are temperamentally not suitable for them — is one of many that, in his opinion, polluted the legislative debate.
“Facts matter,” he said. “The guardians, which would include teachers and other school personnel, they have to qualify at a higher percentage than police recruits have to qualify in the police academy. And they are required to have more hours of firearms training than police have to have in police academy. Not everybody who applies is going to be selected and not everybody who goes through training is going to graduate from it.”
Did anybody want this?
Before the Parkland murders of Feb. 14, 2018, Gualtieri said, he would have been dead-set against arming teachers.
“It’s easy for everybody to be opposed to it,” Donalds said. “It’s the easy thing. It’s a sobering recommendation, but an unfortunate one that we had to deal with in the Legislature. At end of the day we’re trying to save lives. We’re trying to make sure our young people are safe.”
What other details should raise concerns?
Newman said that while the state-mandated weapons training is extensive, he wonders how well the guardians will maintain their skills through recertification.
“You have to build up that threat assessment,” he said, “You have to have some dexterity with this weapon. The (Hillsborough County) Sheriff’s Office does a very good job at recertification. They’ve already told us what they’re going to do. I don’t know what it looks like for every county.”
Newman also wondered how schools can safeguard against the possibility that a guardian will draw a weapon in a situation that is not appropriate. While the training includes shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios, he said, school security is not the same thing as police work.
“I worry about that,” he said. “Everyday behavior does not rise to Feb. 14, 2018. Some of the fights I have seen at the bus stop, at a bar or at a school, some of them may look crazy. That wouldn’t rise to taking out your weapon.
“So let me tell you what I’m worried about as a practitioner. What’s their threat assessment? They have no baseline. In law enforcement, we pull people over. We get used to it, we stop people. After a few years, you’ve got a good baseline of what gets your threat assessment up.
“Teachers are not going to have that. So how are you going to train that? Or are you just going to tell them, ‘It’s an active shooter, and you’ll know’? And I hope that’s the case. Because you don’t want to have that gun out for all of the other behaviors that you have always dealt with before, absent a gun.
“But you have to train on that. The Sheriff’s Office, with us, they do scenario-based training. And they make you critically think, which I like. But I can’t speak for any other county, as it’s all county based.”
When asked about that possibility in Baker County, Crawford again declined to give specifics.
“The state has done a great job of providing very, very rigorous training,” he said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] Follow @Marlenesokol.