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Pinellas' sheriff blessed arming teachers. But will his school board go along?

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, left, sits with school district officials who oversee school safety at a school b oard workshop on Tuesday. As head of the state commission that investigated the 2018 mass shooting attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Gualtieri came to the conclusion that some school staff should be armed. Now he’s trying to convince the Pinellas County School Board. [MEGAN REEVES | Times]
Published May 28

Click here to read this story in Spanish

LARGO — State leaders have already allowed the arming of teachers. But that topic is still being debated in Pinellas County, whose sheriff helped make the Florida law a reality.

The Pinellas County School Board has maintained for more than a year that arming school staff is not an option. But on Tuesday, after an emotional, three-hour presentation by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, some board members say they're reconsidering that stance.

"It made me open my eyes to look a little deeper," School Board member Eileen Long said. "I'm not willing to say that I'm ready to go any further than what we're doing already. But I am willing to have a conversation."

While three board members said their thinking is unchanged, three others agreed with Long that more discussion is needed. Bill Dudley went the furthest, saying he's "more convinced now than ever" the sheriff is right about arming school staff.

Gualtieri says those staffers could respond faster to a mass shooter on a school campus than law enforcement, and the presence of armed staffers would also deter shooters.

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The sheriff's presentation is based on his work chairing the state commission that investigated the 2018 mass shooting attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. One of the commission's recommendations was that school districts be allowed to arm a select group of trained and vetted school staff, including teachers.

Using photos and video from the Stoneman Douglas attack, the sheriff warned Pinellas officials that a similar tragedy will likely happen again. Arming school staff, he said, is a key line of defense that Pinellas campuses are missing.

"People say teachers should be teachers and cops should be cops," Gualtieri said. "The reality is that isn't going to mitigate the harm, and that's not the world we live in."

This month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a widely-debated bill giving local school boards the authority to decide whether to allow classroom teachers and other school staff to serve as armed "guardians." The law requires that volunteers be vetted and trained by a sheriff's office before they can carry a firearm on campus.

Gualtieri told school board members there are many misconceptions surrounding the new law. For example, he said some are caught up by the phrase "arming teachers." But local school districts could apply that strictly to whomever they choose, such as coaches and administrators, to keep guns from regularly being carried inside classrooms.

"I have never once ... advocated for arming teachers," the sheriff said. "What I advocate for is (doing so) under the right circumstances and with the right people."

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For Dudley, a former teacher, that changes everything. After the presentation, he wondered if the public might feel differently about the new law if they knew classroom teachers didn't have to be the ones to be armed.

"That really resonates," he said. "That makes sense."

School Board member Joanne Lentino agreed. While she does not support arming classroom teachers, she said she "absolutely" supports arming other staff approved by the Sheriff's Office.

The sheriff said those who apply to serve as guardians would be put through a "rigorous" background check, then undergo extensive training that goes beyond what sworn officers receive at the police academy. School staff allowed to carry a weapon in schools would use a "retention holster," the sheriff said, to prevent it from falling out.

School Board member Lisa Cane, a mother of four children who attend Pinellas schools, said she is "open to discussing" the sheriff's recommendation. She said he made valid points about how quickly school shootings can unfold. She was also stunned to learn that nearly all of the last 46 school shootings in the U.S. were committed by someone who was allowed to be on campus.

"It's going to happen fast," the sheriff said. "There is no way in the world that you're going to have a cop there in time."

The shooting at Stoneman Douglas, he said, was over in fewer than four minutes. He played the recording of a 911 call from the Feb. 14, 2018 attack to show how long it takes to relay information to law enforcement. At one point, Gualtieri spoke over the noise of the recording: "Think about what's going on at the school right now. Kids are getting shot."

It took one minute and 24 seconds to dispatch officers to Stoneman Douglas, he said, and "the majority of (victims) had been killed by then."

Gualtieri also warned that Pinellas' 911 system is similar to the one that failed in Broward during the school shooting. Calls from St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Largo and Clearwater come into the sheriff's communication center in mid-county, then have to be transferred to the local call centers for those police agencies to deploy officers.

"If it's Pinellas Park High School, if it's Largo High School, if it's whatever elementary school in St. Petersburg — whoever calls 911 is not going to talk to the person who can dispatch police," he said. "The call transfer process is not good."

State lawmakers recently passed a bill that would require those problems to be fixed, Gualtieri said. But the governor has not signed it. In the meantime, the sheriff said he is talking with his county's police chiefs to find solutions.

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School Board chair Rene Flowers and member Nicole Carr said that, despite the sheriff's briefing, they still are not open to the idea of arming school personnel.

Carr said the only people with guns on campus should be "people whose designated task" is to keep schools safe. Flowers commended the school district's efforts to recruit school resource officers and add stronger safety measures since the Stoneman Douglas attack.

"I still fully support the process that we have in place," Flowers said, adding that the officers already stationed on Pinellas campuses are "doing what needs to be done."

Board member Carol Cook said she wants to consider other ways to bolster school security, like adding more school resource officers, before considering giving guns to school personnel.

"I am never one to say I'm not going to have a conversation," she said. "But I'd like to explore the other options before arming our staff."

Gualtieri told School Board members that he knows the decision about arming school staff is ultimately up to them, but cautioned that putting more law enforcement officers in schools is not an option. Not only would it be too expensive, he said, but there's also a shortage of people entering the field.

Said the sheriff: "I just want to give people a fighting chance."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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