TALLAHASSEE — Buses carrying about 150 high school student activists from around Florida arrived Wednesday afternoon to the Capitol ready for a lesson in democracy.
Sporting “March for Our Lives” shirts and holding photos of the victims of last year’s Parkland shooting, they wanted to watch their state lawmakers debate House Bill 7093, which would allow classroom teachers to be armed.
The day promised to echo last year, when students swelled the Capitol to watch and protest as lawmakers voted down an assault weapons ban. Photos of their disappointment became viral images on social media, ricocheting across the country and pressuring lawmakers to pass some type of gun control.
But there would be no repeat of that spectacle this year. Before the bill was scheduled for consideration on the House floor, Republicans “temporarily postponed” the bill, along with numerous others, delaying it until an unspecified date. Students would have to come back.
GOP lawmakers said the delay had nothing to do with the students, but with a technical disagreement with the Senate over whether policy issues, like the bill, should be attached to the budget.
“I can unequivocally say the students and parents had nothing to do with the postponement,” said Fred Piccolo, the House’s spokesman. “They are welcome here anytime.”
House Democrats and some students themselves were skeptical, if not disappointed.
“I’m frustrated because that’s why we’re here. We’re here to hear them speak about the bill, hear them debate about and obviously see them vote on it,” said Alyssa Ackbar, 18, who’s a high school senior at Robinson High School in Tampa that’s a nearly five-hour-drive from Tallahassee. “I think the amount of students that were coming up really kind of spooked them ... that shows a lot about our movement.”
Ackbar said she’s not sure they’ll be able to get buses again for when the bill does come to the floor for debate. Still, she said, some students will find a way to make the trek to Florida’s remote Capitol.
The postponement prompted Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, to reflect on how powerful the Parkland students’ presence was in 2018.
“The last time we had a lot of kids in high school come up here, they changed the course of events for an entire session,” he said. “The one thing they begged us not to do last year was arming teachers.”
Last year, after 17 students and staff were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the state Legislature passed a massive bill that created a “Guardian” program for school staff to be armed, put more officers on campuses, beefed up mental health services in schools and allowed police to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed by the courts to be mentally unstable.
The Guardian program intentionally excluded teachers who “exclusively perform classroom duties” as a compromise to draw the votes of lawmakers uncomfortable with guns in classrooms, a move that was dubbed “the great compromise.”
This year’s measure would expand the Guardian program to allow all classroom teachers to be eligible to carry guns in their schools. In order to be approved, the teacher must go through screening and training by their local sheriff’s office, which bill supporters said would only leave those who are capable of defending their students during a shooting.
With unanimous support from Legislative leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis, it is expected to easily pass.
Ackbar, the Tampa student, said this idea doesn’t make her feel any safer.
“Technically teachers would be given an option but for students, this isn’t an option for us. If one of our teachers is armed, that’s a danger that affects the whole school,” she said.
After the bill’s postponement, the students rallied on the steps of the historic Old Capitol, near the same site as last year’s student demonstration that drew thousands in Tallahassee’s largest protest in decades.
Although it was a fraction of the size, this year’s crowd was a symbol that the movement hadn’t gone away, participants said.
Aalayah Eastmond, 18, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, spoke at the rally about how she hid under the body of her classmate to avoid being shot. Bill debate or not, it’s important that students express their positions, she said.
“It’s important for the youth to come here and be present to have their voices heard,” Eastmond said. “We need to show them that we will be present when it comes to things that will impact us.”
As students could be heard chanting “We’ll be back!”, House Speaker José Oliva told reporters that lawmakers have kept the students’ opinions in mind when drafting this year’s bill.
“I think the fact we’ve spent a lot of time crafting legislation says that we’ve taken them into account,” he said.
Robert Schentrup, 19, lost his younger sister, Carmen, during the Parkland shooting last year. He said he knows she would have supported his political activism on these issues, and he’s closely followed both the implementation of last year’s law and the debate surrounding the bill this session.
“I’m glad the overall conversation around guns is still happening,” he said. “Of course I think of (Carmen) when I’m dealing with this issue ... She had a lot ahead of her, and it’s hard knowing all of that got cut short.”
Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.