State lawmakers who really care about improving school safety should allow millions in unspent money that was allocated to train and arm school personnel to be used instead to hire more campus police officers. Instead, the incoming House and Senate leaders are rejecting Gov. Rick Scottís request and doubling down on the unpopular guardian program that would arm school employees but has been rejected by most districts. By refusing to budge, Floridaís top Republican lawmakers are letting $58 million go unspent rather than using it to protect students.
In response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, legislators passed a school safety bill that required every Florida public school to have armed security. The law included $67 million for guardians ó school employees (excluding classroom teachers) who would volunteer to undergo 132 hours of firearms training and carry a gun during school hours on campus. But most school districts made it clear they wanted only sworn law enforcement officers to be armed and took a pass on the guardian money.
Thatís a strong indication of just how misguided the guardian program is when even cash-strapped school districts are saying no to millions in state funds. For the school year that just began, only about $9 million in guardian funds are being used statewide, leaving $58 million that could pay for more sworn officers on campuses. Thatís $58 million that could offset some cuts districts had to make in other areas in order to meet the security requirements. Itís a waste of money that sacrifices student safety. Scott has correctly implored legislative leaders to allow the leftover money to be used for other security efforts, an idea supported by local law enforcement and school district officials around the state.
Around Tampa Bay, districts found other ways to meet the new security requirements, generally by hiring security guards who are paid less than traditional school resource officers. Many of the new hires are retired or former police officers. The unused state funds would have an immediate impact here, to the tune of $4.2 million for Hillsborough schools, $829,171 in Pinellas, $367,266 in Pasco and $534,440 in Hernando.
Yet incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, insist the guardian program only needs time to grow, as if itís a fashion trend that has yet to catch on. Actually itís just a bad idea ó and an underfunded one at that. The law devotes $67 million for the guardian program and $97.5 million for school resource officers as part of the total $400 million to better secure schools and offer more campus mental health services. In a state with more than 2 million public school students attending some 4,300 schools, even that amount isnít enough to secure every campus and adequately confront the perilous mix of untreated mental health and lax gun regulations.
Making campuses safer, strengthening support for mental health and stemming the tide of gun violence will take more money and a more honest commitment from the next governor and Legislature. In the meantime, lawmakers are sitting on money they budgeted for school safety ó and refusing to allow it to be spent on school safety. Thatís a failure of leadership and a stubborn stance that penalizes local school districts and does nothing to protect Florida students.