Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Lawmaker's suggestion to arm teachers met with resistance by educators

State Rep. Dennis Baxley's suggestion on Monday that schools would be safer if more people in schools had guns was dismissed on Wednesday by an assortment of people who work in schools and teach children.

"I don't see any way schools would be safer if everyone had guns," said Tampa's MacFarlane Park Elementary principal Denyse Riveiro, adding that guns would create a dangerous environment and upset the learning process. "We teach peace."

"I got a very simple answer: Are you crazy?" said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "The last thing you want to do is to put weapons into hands of people who aren't fully trained."

"I'm not a fan of solving violence by escalating violence on an elementary school campus," said Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, who has taught in the classroom and now is a charter school administrator. "Elementary schools should not be the OK Corral. We have other ways to make our schools safer than arming our teachers."

Baxley, R-Ocala, was responding to the shooting Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and seven adults dead, including the shooter. Making schools gun-free zones invites the possibility of a mass shooting, Baxley said.

"We need to be more realistic at looking at this policy. In our zealousness to protect people from harm we've created all these gun-free zones, and what we've inadvertently done is we've made them a target," said the lifelong National Rifle Association member who sponsored the bill that in 2005 became Florida's "stand your ground" law.

"A helpless target is exactly what a deranged person is looking for where they cannot be stopped."

Many local schools have increased police presence temporarily and are examining safety measures since the Connecticut shooting, but so far Baxley is alone in suggesting the state reconsider gun-free zones at schools. He said, however, he doesn't plan to file legislation allowing teachers or administrators to carry guns because he is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and he doesn't want to preside over a meeting where one of his bills is considered.

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia prohibit even those holding concealed-weapons permits or licenses from bringing guns onto school grounds, according to a survey by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which opposes guns in schools.

The push to change the law isn't new. A former Texas lawmaker whose parents were killed in the 1991 Luby's massacre has long argued that killers purposely target gun-free zones and that states should allow trained and licensed educators to carry concealed weapons. Educators there have routinely fought such bills. But in 2008 the tiny town of Harrold, Texas, was the first to begin letting some teachers carry concealed weapons.

It is unknown whether others have followed suit, but there has been political movement since Sandy Hook. In South Carolina, a bill has been introduced to allow guns on school grounds. In Oklahoma, two lawmakers plan to introduce similar legislation. A South Dakota lawmaker is drafting a bill.

But in Florida — which on Wednesday became the first state to issue its millionth concealed-weapons permit — most legislators have been mum.

"It's far too early to be talking about this," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "We need to stay away from responding to this with a knee-jerk reaction."

Some Hernando County residents have called the school district to give their ideas on how to make the schools safer. Arming teachers is one of them. So are installing bulletproof glass everywhere and equipping fences with alarms.

"The messages that we've sent is that firearms don't belong in school," said Hernando schools superintendent Bryan Blavatt. "Throughout our history, schools have been the one place where firearms were never acceptable by anybody."

Wendy Seth, mom of two at Lake Myrtle Elementary School in Land O'Lakes, told the Pasco County School Board that she wanted full-time armed police.

"There is no excuse in this day and age for there not to be a police presence at the elementary level," Seth said. "I realize money is tight. … But when it comes to safety … something needs to be done."

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning acknowledged the fears that many parents have expressed and stressed the district's ongoing commitment to making schools safe. But Browning said he won't go as far as putting armed officers permanently at the elementary schools. It's not a message he believes the district wants to send, that children are unsafe without armed guards on constant patrol.

"This is an issue we struggle with," he said. "Events have caused us to ratchet up our thoughts. … But we believe things will come back to some state of normalcy."

In Hillsborough, School Board Chairman April Griffin said arming teachers is a slippery slope.

"I want less guns in schools, not more," she said. "And certainly those guns should be in the hands of certified law enforcement officers. I don't think our teachers ever intended to be first responders. Their job is to educate."

One Hillsborough teacher told WTSP-Ch. 10 that if rules changed, she would feel safer carrying a gun.

"I'd want to protect my kids," said teacher Jennifer Cook, contemplating an armed intruder entering her classroom. "They are as if they're my own kids. For eight hours a day they're mine." The Tampa Bay Times could not reach Cook for comment.

But Lynne Webb, president of United School Employees of Pasco, said she has never heard a teacher endorse those measures. As it is, teachers are even discouraged from bringing medication to school, for fear students could find the drugs and hurt themselves.

"There are far more reasons to keep guns off of campus than there are to have them on campus," she said. "I just envision all kinds of possible problems that could arise."

Times staff writers Danny Valentine, Marlene Sokol, Jeffrey S. Solochek and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.

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