CLEARWATER — A fourth-grade teacher at Leila G. Davis Elementary School in Clearwater, Despina Garos did not always wish to include a hidden handgun on her list of classroom supplies.
But the world has changed since the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Another sign of those changes has come to Pinellas County, in the form of firearms training marketed specifically to schoolteachers.
Garos and other county educators have signed up for a specially discounted class this month that will enable participants, once they pass, to apply to carry a concealed gun. Ordinarily $75, the four-hour course is being offered free to teachers by the Clearwater-based security firm International Executive Protection. The company said in a promotional email that it is catering to the "growing interest in concealed-carry permits, particularly among educational professionals."
As of Monday afternoon, the organizer of the class said 53 teachers had signed up.
"I want to be comfortable handling a weapon. I want to be able to handle a gun. I want to be able to use it if I need to," Garos said. "After Sandy Hook, it became my position that I'm going to do this (training)." Garos said she would obey the law and not carry a gun on school grounds — to do so is illegal — but that if the laws were different, she would be comfortable keeping a handgun in a locked box in her classroom.
Concealed guns aren't rare in Florida. The state has issued more than a million concealed-weapon licenses and continues to aggressively promote its streamlined permitting process.
Yet a concealed-carry class marketed specifically to teachers in the wake of a campus shooting raises some uncomfortable questions, as state law prohibits educators, or anyone else besides law enforcement officers or authorized security guards, from carrying guns at school.
"What a teacher does in their personal life is totally up to them," Pinellas School Board chairwoman Carol Cook said. "The laws we have to abide by will still be enforced."
Informed about the class by the Tampa Bay Times, school district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said in a statement that the district "has no affiliation with this organization and no association with the offer they are promoting to educators."
The gun course is the brainchild of International Executive Protection president Lenny Bogdanos. A 39-year-old bodyguard and tae kwon do instructor from Clearwater, Bogdanos said he was inspired by the 2003 business how-to book Purple Cow, which encourages entrepreneurs to distinguish their companies — making them as noticeable as the book's eponymous bovine — with unusual marketing efforts.
"I'm not trying to be offensive in any way," Bogdanos said. "I'm not advocating that teachers should walk around the school grounds with guns, because that's against the law. But an educated society is an empowered society."
Bogdanos, who said he is certified as a firearms safety instructor by the National Rifle Association, claimed he has had "hundreds and hundreds of emails" expressing interest in the concealed-carry course, though it has only been marketed so far through emails to Pinellas schoolteachers and Facebook.
He expects the 53 teachers who have signed up to be joined by others by the time the class takes place Feb. 16.
There has been little serious discussion of altering Florida's ban on guns in schools, though state Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican known for his opposition to gun regulation, suggested allowing teachers and administrators to carry firearms after the Newtown shooting.
Bruce Proud, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said any proposal to allow educators to carry guns into the classroom would likely be "problematic" and require thorough vetting. Among other issues, he cited the risk of a poorly secured gun falling into the wrong hands at school.
School Board member Robin Wikle said she was surprised at the number of teachers that Bogdanos says are interested in his class. Wikle said she has had a license to carry a concealed weapon for four years but "would never consider bringing a weapon on campus."
She said she hopes teachers don't feel the need to consider it too strongly, either.
"They need to have — I don't want to say the leisure — but they need to have the feeling that they are there to teach," she said. "You want to protect your students, but not to the point of protecting them with a weapon."
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.