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Florida Senate lays groundwork for ‘tweaks’ to school security law

Activists put lawmakers on notice they'll fight any effort to expand the armed school guard program to include teachers.

Several aspects of Florida's new public school safety act (SB 7026) are up for review during the upcoming legislative session, with a stated goal of making the the laws more manageable and clear.

The changes are likely to focus on ideas such as putting more "teeth" into requiring annual security assessments, setting needs-based priorities for school hardening funds, and clarifying the frequency of required active-shooter drills.

"We do foresee there's going to be the need for some legislation to tweak the current law," Senate Education Committee chairman Manny Diaz told his panel Tuesday, during the first of two scheduled hearings on the subject.

As lawmakers look into various aspects of the rules, including recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, some members of the public let them know that one item in particular is in their sights.

"Arming teachers is not the way to go," Gay Valimont of Moms Demand Action told the committee during public comment.

Valimont and a group of other activists from Moms Demand, Students Demand and Educators Demand — affiliated groups that seek to end gun violence —  wore red t-shirts and buttons calling attention to their cause as they sat through the 90-minute session.

They thanked lawmakers for taking steps to better protect students and schools, including efforts to place officers or guards at every campus. But expanding the initiative to arm teachers — especially if it comes in the form of a mandate — was a non-starter for them.

So far, no one has proposed a requirement that teachers carry weapons, only that they may volunteer to do so. SB 7026 specifically exempted teachers from the armed guard program.

"I firmly believe teachers should teach, not do double duty as armed guards," said Anna Logan, a Leon High School student and Students Demand Action member. "Arming teachers should not be a part of the conversation. It should be rejected outright."

One speaker, who identified herself as a 20-year teacher, said if the best answer to protecting students is arming teachers, then the state has failed.

The lawmakers did not discuss the issue of armed teachers. One of its guest panelists, Suwannee County superintendent Ted Roush, said in his county the idea did not cause waves.

Some instructional and non-instructional employees volunteered to serve as armed guardians, Roush said, and the biggest issue was ensuring that they received employment protections in the event that they are called upon during an incident.

Roush did ask the committee to consider adding the guardians to the list of employees who are exempted from providing their directory information publicly, similar to law enforcement personnel, in the public records law.

Roush and Polk County superintendent Jacqueline Byrd also encouraged the lawmakers to ensure that adequate state funding remains in place for schools to continue staffing the guard positions and make other security improvements.

When the committee next meets, it plans to review the Public Safety Commission report delivered earlier in January. All on the panel agreed the subject remains a high priority moving forward.