Hillsborough School Board unanimously opposes arming school employees

Hillsborough County School Board [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Hillsborough County School Board [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published March 6, 2018|Updated March 7, 2018

TAMPA — Under pressure from teachers, students and his own school board to take a stand against a proposal to allow armed employees in the schools, Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins said Tuesday he will take that stand.

The board unanimously approved a motion by board member Cindy Stuart to oppose what is now called the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, state legislation that would permit arming school employees. It is named for the coach killed while shielding students from the gunman who killed 17 people during the Feb. 14 attack on Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.

While supporters of the bill have backed away from President Trump's idea to allow classroom teachers to carry firearms, the measure would still allow other school personnel who are not in the classroom full-time to carry guns.

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The plan calls for extensive training for armed school staffers, but has still been roundly dismissed by educators. The Florida House is set to vote on it today .

"We have an obligation to keep our students safe and not arm our teachers or any school employees with additional weapons," Stuart said at Tuesday's school board meeting.

"It is wrong, arming anyone other than law enforcement on our campus."

The motion Stuart introduced also directs Eakins to call for more state funding for mental health services for students, and to insist that Florida not reduce what it will spend per student on education.

It also supports language in the bill that would leave it to school districts and their local sheriffs to decide whether to opt into the guardian program.

Stuart said that point is moot, as she does not believe Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister supports the idea. Chronister confirmed his stance to the Tampa Bay Times, saying there are more effective ways to protect schools.

April Griffin, who seconded Stuart's motion, wanted to go even farther. She asked board attorney Jim Porter to research the consequences of ignoring such a law altogether.

"I don't even want to consider opting into any marshal program," Griffin said.

"I know a lot of people with concealed weapons permits who I would not want to see having guns in the schools. We cannot afford to give raises any more. We cannot afford to buy copy paper. I want us to take a very strong stand against this. I don't even want any more officers in our elementary schools."

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The remarks by Stuart, Griffin and most of the board followed similar statements from the teacher's union and students who lined up during public comments .

"I will go to virtual school if I have to if I learn that my teacher has a gun," N'Dia Webb of Strawberry Crest High School told the board.

Blake High School's James Cole said that by arming employees, "we are actually welcoming a shooter."

A similar conversation unfolded at Tuesday night's Pasco County School Board meeting, where members made it clear they don't want employees carrying weapons, either.

"I don't support arming our teachers and I'm not sold on arming any of our staff," board member Colleen Beaudoin said.

Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong and member Alison Crumbley agreed. Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning has already he opposes adding more guns to schools that aren't in the hands of law enforcement.

Browning said he plans to meet with Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco on Thursday to discuss best ways to improve school security. Nocco has said he will follow the district's lead.

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Eakins, until now, has taken a slightly more measured approach in Hillsborough County. In a written statement last week, he said he did not think it was a good idea to arm teachers.

However, he also said that if the guardian plan became a legal option, he would consider it, with input from community stakeholders.

There was no talk among his board members, however about considering the plan. The closest anyone came to objecting to Stuart's motion was a request from Melissa Snively to hold a full-day board workshop on school security as well.

After the 7-0 vote, Eakins said that, anticipating such a request, he has already asked his attorney to draft a letter to the governor and Legislature.

Staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol