Florida Senate delays bill to let teachers carry guns in school

The House will consider a related measure in the morning.
Sen. Tom Lee chairs the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee, which postponed its March 20, 2019, hearing on a bill that would allow teachers to participate in the state school guardian program. [The Florida Channel]
Sen. Tom Lee chairs the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee, which postponed its March 20, 2019, hearing on a bill that would allow teachers to participate in the state school guardian program. [The Florida Channel]
Published March 20
Updated March 20

Facing a standing-room only crowd, Sen. Tom Lee apologized Wednesday for canceling debate on the bill on allowing armed teachers in schools that the audience had come to discuss.

The Infrastructure and Security Committee had a schedule planned, chairman Lee explained.

But the timing simply didn’t work out. With 30 minutes remaining on the 2-hour meeting agenda, he announced SB 7030 wouldn’t be heard.

“If I took this bill up after Sen. Gruters’ bill here, we would have very little time left,” Lee said. “It would be more offensive to you to try to slam this bill through than to have you come back.”

The immediate response was displeasure, with some taking to social media to note they can’t return because they’ll be back to work when the committee takes up the bill, now slated for a March 26 hearing.

The House Education Committee, meanwhile, has plans to take up a related bill early Thursday.

The crowd attending Wednesday’s meeting filled all the committee room chairs and streamed out the door, waiting for the opportunity to weigh in on the subject.

It was part of a larger measure aimed at tweaking last year’s school safety bill, adopted in the aftermath of the shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. And much of the posturing ahead of the meeting was opposed to the idea of letting teachers carry guns in their classrooms.

The Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence — a group spearheaded by the League of Women Voters and the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus — had launched a campaign urging lawmakers to vote against arming teachers.

The initiative included online ads, widely shared on social media, demanding that trained law enforcement protect the schools.

The Florida Education Association also took a firm stance against the proposal, sending out a statement just before the meeting noting federal statistics show armed private citizens rarely stop active shooters.

“The Florida Education Association supports the provisions to harden our schools and the additional funding for mental health services,” the group stated. “But the provision that would arm teachers and school employees will do more harm than good.”

A year ago, with Florida under different leadership and in an election season, the Legislature specifically removed teachers from the list of school employees who might carry guns to guard their campuses.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri revived the conversation in the fall when, as chairman of the state Public Safety Commission, he announced he had changed his position on the subject. Initially opposed to the idea of teachers with guns, Gualtieri said his review of actions at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on the day of its February 2018 shooting convinced him that more armed adults on campus could have stopped the attack sooner.

His sentiment was not universal. Many teachers, parents, students and even other law enforcement officers quickly raised the same concerns they had brought forth when the idea surfaced in the spring.

Related: Gradebook podcast: A year after Parkland, Florida debates arming teachers

But it got added to the commission’s final report, which legislative leaders later said they intended to follow.

The Senate jumped first, introducing its bill in February during committee weeks. The measure passed its initial committee stop along party lines. Then it sat for a month, until Wednesday’s hearing.

The House held off, not even releasing its own version of the anticipated revisions to the school security law until this week.

Like the Senate, the House would remove the restriction that has kept teachers from participating in the guardian program.

In other areas, its proposal differs. For example:

• The House would continue to leave the decision whether a school district will have guardians in the hands of the local sheriff. The Senate, by contrast, would require a sheriff to begin the program if a school board wants it.

• The House also would grant the local sheriffs the role of certifying school guardians, whereas the Senate would give superintendents the authority to appoint or reject any guardians from working in their district schools.

• The Senate would provide for charter schools to participate in the guardian program without waiting for school boards to decide. In the first year of the program, charters did not have that power. The House also would grant that role to charters, but would go farther by allowing private schools to join, as well.

In related matters, both chambers seek to hold school districts accountable for their adherence to the school security laws.

The Senate has proposed giving the state education commissioner oversight responsibility, with the authority to sanction those officials who fail to comply. The House has recommended the Education Practices Commission get the power to issue fines for noncompliance.

To track troubled students, who might become a threat, both bodies also want to look into how schools might share information about children. The Senate has called for a work group to discuss how to create a statewide threat assessment database, while the House would mandate short time frames of one to two days for schools to deliver student records after a student transfers.

The House Education Committee meets at 8 a.m. Thursday.