TALLAHASSEE — More than a year after last year’s Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland that shocked the state and blurred party lines in the state Capitol, the Florida Senate passed a follow-up bill that has become increasingly partisan because of its expansion of a program that would allow classroom teachers to be armed.
It succeeded on a 22-17 vote. Although the vote count isn’t far off from last year’s 20-18 vote, Tuesday’s vote fell much more along party lines. Only one senator, Sen. Anitere Flores, a Republican from Miami, kept it from being a complete party-line passage when she voted against the bill with all the Democrats. The Florida House, where support for the bill is strong, is expected to take up the measure either later this week or next week.
The 54-page proposal, Senate Bill 7030, cleared the floor with its most contentious piece intact: an expansion of the “Guardian” program created last year that would allow teachers to volunteer to carry guns after undergoing screening and training by a sheriff’s office.
Under the current law, educators who “exclusively perform classroom duties” are not eligible to participate in the program — a carve-out that was added as a compromise to Democrats and then-Gov. Rick Scott, who opposed allowing teachers to have guns on campus.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who served on the post-Parkland commission charged with reviewing the government failures that led to the deadly shooting, spoke for more than 20 minutes on the Senate floor on Tuesday, sometimes through tears, about how conflicted she felt about her vote. She ultimately voted against it.
“Outside of this role (on the commission) I’m a mom who recently began dropping off my own kids off at school. I always figured I’d tear up because of how sweet and cute they are,” she said. “I never imagined tears streaming down my face because I’m afraid of what might happen to them.”
“I must, at the urging of my community, vote no today, but it’s an exceedingly, exceedingly painful vote,” Book added.
In the Senate’s earlier hearing of the bill last week, Democrats unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to get the teachers piece removed.
“The (Parkland) kids came here to this Capitol … what resonated about their coming here was the fact that they said, ‘Do not arm my teacher.’ And here we are, creating a pathway to arming teachers,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
This debate has also highlighted differences stemming from Florida’s geography, as Republicans representing rural areas such as Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, repeated concerns about how quickly school shooting can unfold.
“I have schools that are 20 minutes away from anybody coming,” he said. “There needs to be somebody there that is prepared to act in the first three minutes.”
Meanwhile, Democrats, many of whom represent major cities, emphasized the abundance of guns in their communities, a concern that has particularly haunted the Legislative Black Caucus since last year.
“In my district, there are children that are living with gun violence every day outside of school. The school is a safe space for them,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. “Let’s not inject this into that safe space for these children.”
Despite earlier hopes expressed by at least one Democrat that they could make a deal with Republicans, their efforts failed. Braynon, however, did succeed in getting two amendments adopted that would require schools to report every time armed staff or school law enforcement officers are disciplined or fire their gun, and for that information to be published annually.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the bill was being unfairly politicized, especially when a Democrat brought up the National Rifle Association’s support for the idea of arming teachers during debate last week.
“I even heard the NRA boogeyman mentioned … Has anyone heard from the NRA on this? I haven’t. This is not about gun rights,” he said. “This is about keeping our children safe and when all other things fail, that there is a last line of defense.”
Other than the piece related to arming teachers, the bill also includes a slew of other follow-ups to last year’s law, most of which are supported by lawmakers of both parties. Those include specifics on how schools should implement mental health services for their students and clarifies districts’ shared responsibility to help ensure charter schools have armed security.
The bill also would create a standardized “threat assessment” tool for schools to keep records of students they feel may pose a “behavioral threat” to themselves or others.