Could the Florida Senate remove arming teachers from the school safety bill?

Democrats withdrew their amendments on that subject in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, saying they have spoken to the majority party.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, voted for the school safety bill during Thursday's committee meeting but said he wants to "reserve" his right to vote against it on the Senate floor. | Tampa Bay Times
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, voted for the school safety bill during Thursday's committee meeting but said he wants to "reserve" his right to vote against it on the Senate floor. | Tampa Bay Times
Published April 12, 2019|Updated April 12, 2019

Democrats in the Senate have an agreement with the Republican majority to at least consider not making all teachers eligible to have guns in the classroom, according to Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr.

The chances are "60-40,” Thurston said, with the higher percentage going toward the idea that arming teachers would be removed. The Democrats withdrew several amendments related to the teacher portion of the bill during Thursday’s vote on the bill in the Senate Appropriations committee, citing their agreement.

“If they take that out, there are quite a few (Democrats) who would be willing to vote for it," added Thurston, a Democrat from Lauderhill.

The bill in question, Senate Bill 7030, is a major school safety bill meant to build upon the landmark post-Parkland law from last session. In addition to raising the gun purchasing age to 21 and adding more mental health services to schools, that law created the “Guardian” program, which allows school staff to volunteer to be trained by local law enforcement to carry guns on campus.

As part of a compromise last year, the Legislature agreed to remove teachers who “exclusively perform classroom duties" from being eligible to carry guns. This year’s bill aims to undo that exception, angering Democrats who have taken an official caucus position against the bill.

But many Republicans passionately argued for that piece on Thursday, citing the fact that the Parkland shooting was over within minutes, so an armed teacher on campus would be able to respond immediately.

“I can’t imagine under what circumstance we would say they (teachers) would not be as qualified as any other law enforcement officer to be able to carry a gun a protect the children that are in those classrooms," said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. "Had this been in effect prior to the disaster last year on February the 14th, we probably would not have lost, potentially any lives.”

The bill was substantially amended on Thursday to include provisions recommended by the House, as well as the Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The new version includes many more specifics on how schools should implement their mental health services, including a requirement that districts include in their written plan strategies to address substance abuse or suicidal tendencies in their students.

A Times/Herald review of district plans found that only a handful of county plans statewide explicitly flagged suicide prevention programs as a central focus. Two recent South Florida suicides were attributed to trauma related to last year’s shooting, which left 17 students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School dead and 17 more injured.

The bill would also create a statewide, standardized “threat assessment” tool for schools to keep records of students they feel may pose a “behavioral threat” to themselves or others so they can record their services and treatment, and ensures those records follow the student if they move districts.

A new piece added Thursday would allow school districts that choose to implement the “Guardian” program to contract with a sheriff’s office outside their county to train their staff, if their home sheriff is opposed to the idea. Under current law, both the school board and the sheriff’s office must both agree to offer the program, which has left some districts willing to arm staff without an agency to train them.

That piece was a major concern of Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who mentioned how the Hillsborough County Sheriff, Chad Chronister, is opposed to the program and Lee wouldn’t want the school board to be able to circumvent that if it hypothetically desired.

“He’s a constitutional officer elected by 1.4 million people in our community it just doesn’t seem like it makes common sense,” Lee said.

Lee voted for the bill on Thursday, but said he wanted to “reserve” his right to vote against it at its next stop, which is the Senate floor. He voted against the post-Parkland bill last year and could be one of the wild card Republican votes that decide the bill’s passage.

Another Republican, Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, voted against the bill in the committee, calling the piece that would allow all classroom teachers to be armed a “poison pill."

When it comes to putting more guns in schools, "there’s more things that can go wrong than can go right in that situation,” she said. “I really hope that I’m wrong. I hope we’re all wrong and it will be a lot more good that comes from this than bad, but I firmly believe our kids’ lives should be protected by more than just hope.”

Those two Republicans, plus the absence of the reliable conservative vote of Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, who has been ill, puts the bill’s passage on shakier grounds than was initially apparent.

The result: the potential need for the Republicans to work with Democrats.

“There are some Republicans who are on the fence,” Thurston said. “The other part of it is this you get legislation that is supposed to be ‘landmark legislation’ and it’s on party lines then it doesn’t look like landmark legislation. Then it looks like something half the state wants.”

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.