Florida House advances school security bill that would allow armed teachers

Most speakers at the meeting opposed the measure, but lawmakers approve it.
Florida House Education Committee chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan encourages her colleagues to support a school safety bill that would allow, among other things, teachers to participate as armed school guardians. 'To be clear, this bill does not require a teacher to be armed,' Sullivan said at the March 21, 2019, session. [The Florida Channel]
Florida House Education Committee chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan encourages her colleagues to support a school safety bill that would allow, among other things, teachers to participate as armed school guardians. 'To be clear, this bill does not require a teacher to be armed,' Sullivan said at the March 21, 2019, session. [The Florida Channel]
Published March 21

In introducing her 36-page school safety bill Thursday, Florida House Education Committee chairwoman Rep. Jennifer Sullivan wanted to be clear: “This bill does not require a teacher to be armed.”

It would, however, allow school districts to let teachers voluntarily participate in the state’s armed guardian program, if they survive a rigorous background check and complete required training. And it passed the committee along party lines, after nearly two hours of comments and debate.

The Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee delayed its hearing on a similar bill Wednesday evening, after it ran short on time.

The Republican majority in House Education noted its bill addressed several areas of school safety, including holding district officials responsible for complying with state security rules and ensuring that student records are promptly delivered after they transfer. It also aimed to add funding to mental health services, among other aspects.

It contained “far more good things” toward improving upon the state’s law, adopted in the aftermath of the 2018 Parkland high school shooting, than just the one provision that some people didn’t like, said Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater.

But the part about teachers with guns dominated the conversation.

It stirred strong opposition from an audience filled with educators and their supporters, who urged the panel not to remove language from a post-Parkland law that excluded teachers from being part of armed campus protection. Only two of about two dozen speakers supported the measure.

“Quite frankly, putting more guns in schools is not the right answer to reducing gun violence,” United Teachers of Dade vice president Antonio White told the committee. “Arming teachers is dangerous.”

White called it “unreasonable and irresponsible” to permit teachers to become first responders, suggesting they barely have enough time for their primary mission instructing children.

Nicolette Springer of the League of Women Voters, a lead agency backing the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, argued that teachers should not carry guns in schools, nor should they be forced to work in a school where they might feel unsafe if an educator in a nearby classroom has a weapon.

She further suggested that the amount of training provided to guardians is not enough to put them on par with sworn officers.

“We’re asking too much from our educators,” Springer told the panel. “This is the job of law enforcement.”

Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, pounced on her comments. If Springer trusted law enforcement, Fine asked did she trust the judgment of the Broward County deputy who hid at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High while bullets flew? Or the Broward County sheriff who defended his officers’ actions?

Springer called it unfair and invalid to extrapolate individual reactions to the entirety of law enforcement in Florida. She wondered if Fine would want the actions of a single lawmaker to be attributed to all.

“That’s fair,” Fine retorted. “People don’t die if I do my job.”

“But they might,” Springer shot back, “if you put guns in teachers’ hands.”

Other speakers did not get into such heated back and forth with members. But they did stick to a common point, that they worried about the consequences of allowing teachers to carry guns in schools. Even if it’s not mandated, said Nancy Lawther of the Miami-Dade PTA, “our concern is, what’s next?”

Lawmakers staked out clear positions along party lines.

The panel’s five Democrats present each said they could not vote for a bill that would allow teachers to carry guns — even if other aspects of the bill were “extremely good,” as Rep. Delores Hogan Johnson of Fort Pierce put it. They raised the same concerns the issue has generated each time it has arisen in Florida, things like what might happen if a teacher loses the gun, or gets overpowered by a student.

The dozen Republicans repeatedly noted the bill does not require teachers to have weapons. They said they wouldn’t support such an idea.

Rather, they spoke of the importance of doing whatever they can to increase school safety, with a goal of deterring or preventing future attacks.

Rep. Amber Mariano, a Pasco County Republican, talked about the “fully armed coward” and the “unarmed hero” at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and wondered, “If this bill were in place before Parkland, how many less lives would have been lost?”

“This is not bring your gun to school day,” Fine said, noting the guardian program has protections in place even after a board participates and a teacher volunteers.

When closing, Sullivan lamented that the possibility of teachers becoming armed guardians, and the possible “parade of horribles,” took up so much time.

“We’ve spent very little of the past 1 hour and 56 minutes talking about what actually is in this bill,” she said. “I believe this is a bill that will make our schools safer.”

The House bill has not been assigned to other committees yet. It would have to be reconciled with the Senate bill before it would go to the governor.

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