Teachers with guns? The idea is back, but many Florida educators still say no thanks.

Many school officials who opposed the idea of arming teachers when it first came up haven't changed their views, even as the issue resurfaces.
Published November 30 2018
Updated December 3 2018

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri made big news over Thanksgiving break when, as chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, he announced that he now sees value in having armed teachers in schools.

His change of heart on the issue, along with his plan to recommend lawmakers allow willing teachers to carry guns, has prompted Florida educators to revisit a debate that raged in the spring as the idea first surfaced.

Most did not like the concept before. And with few exceptions, they don't like it now, either.

"I think you're going to have a difficult time finding people to take on the responsibility," said Hillsborough County School Board member Cindy Stuart, who called the notion of arming teachers "absolutely crazy."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri now supports armed teachers to stop school shooters

Most of her School Board colleagues shared her view, saying they would not consider changing their priority of having trained law enforcement and guards to protect the schools.

"I don't support teachers carrying guns, just as I don't support security officers teaching students," Hillsborough board chairwoman Tamara Shamburger said.

Newly elected Pasco County School Board member Megan Harding worked as an elementary school teacher until her swearing in. She said she could not imagine having a gun in her classroom.

"I have spoken to a lot of my (teaching) colleagues. That's not what they want to do either. ... That's not a teacher's job," Harding said. "Our district has gone the right direction with armed security guards and (school resource officers)."

Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning suggested that arming teachers could create added responsibilities and safety concerns for teachers and students, which he did not want to bring into the schools.

Such as the possibility of a student gaining access to a teacher's weapon. Or a teacher accidentally dropping a gun that goes off in the classroom.

"Those are issues I don't want to have to worry about," Pinellas County School Board chairwoman Rene Flowers said. "We're supposed to be about teaching."

Let law enforcement deal with the security issues, she added.

Hernando County School Board vice chairwoman Linda Prescott harbored similar worries.

"How do we know the good guys from the bad guys" in a real-time incident, asked Prescott, whose district has officers in every school.

She added that her husband, a retired military veteran, told her one of the hardest things to do is to teach someone to kill. And teachers would not be trained like soldiers.

"Shooting at a target is a whole lot different than shooting at a human being," Prescott said.

That psychological component is a critical piece in considering who should be guarding the schools, Collier County superintendent Kamela Patton said.

If police officers struggled to make the right decisions at Parkland, it's hard to imagine less-prepared teachers in such a situation, she said.

"People don't stop and think, 'Let me put on a vest,'" she said. "I'm concerned about a teacher with a gun getting shot. ... Why would you set up a situation for anything like that?"

That's not to say educators won't protect their students, said Alachua County School Board member Leanetta McNealy, who was a teacher and principal before joining the board.

"We would put our lives down for our children," she said. "But we do not want to pull the trigger."

Lawmakers should take other steps to keep classrooms safe, suggested United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats.

"They should instead invest in our children by providing the counselors and preventative mental health programs they need to help them deal with the stresses they are facing on the daily basis," Hernandez-Mats said.

Bay County school superintendent Bill Husfelt was among the few whose district already has some teachers carrying guns, after being trained and screened by the local Sheriff's Office.

He acknowledged that some teachers would not want to ever be armed, and others should not be. But as someone who once faced a gunman while attending a School Board meeting, Husfelt contended that any possible steps to enhance defenses should be considered.

"I support whatever measures we have to take in order to promote the professional protection of our students, faculty and staff members," he said. "I do not believe we just need to hand out guns to anyone who wants them but I believe in vetting, training and arming those who feel called to take on this responsibility."

During debate this week over legislative priorities at the Florida School Boards Association fall conference in Tampa, Flowers raised the issue of arming teachers with her counterparts from across the state.

One concern that quickly surfaced is the possibility that lawmakers, in refining school security laws, might mandate arming teachers rather than making it optional.

"I think the Legislature would see a push back like no other," Flowers said.

Kim McDougal, formerly Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff, told the group she did not anticipate such a dramatic step. But Ruth Melton, governmental affairs director for the school boards association, said the idea might come up, and she expects the issue to be heavily debated during the legislative session.

Stuart, of the Hillsborough School Board, lamented that the idea of arming teachers is even a discussion point. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., she noted, money was no object as the government created a transportation security agency.

They didn't try to arm everyone getting on a plane and tell them to stay safe, she said.

"It's sad that those in charge of creating laws and funding say it's too expensive to put law enforcement in schools, and are putting this in the hands of teachers," Stuart said.

The Public Safety Commission's final report is due in early 2019.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected]y.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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