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Florida House passes bill allowing teachers to be armed, sending it to Gov. DeSantis

For teachers and other staff to be armed, school districts must opt-in to the so-called “Guardian program,” which allows teachers and other staff to volunteer to carry a gun on campus after undergoing screening and training by a local sheriff’s office.

TALLAHASSEE — After about seven hours of angry, sometimes deeply painful debate about race and gun violence that spanned two days, the Florida House passed a bill Wednesday that would allow classroom teachers to be armed, expanding a program lawmakers created last year after the Parkland shooting.

The debate reached emotional heights that had Democrats shouting or tearing up as black lawmakers delved into details about their personal experiences with racism and their deep-seated fears about minority children being targeted by teachers who have guns.

The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who expressed early support for it. For teachers and other staff to be armed, school districts must opt-in to the so-called “Guardian program,” which allows teachers and other staff to volunteer to carry a gun on campus after undergoing screening and training by a local sheriff’s office.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park who is widely known as a polite speaker and someone with friends on both sides of the aisle, yelled into his microphone Tuesday after a Republican said that one of Jones’ amendments implied that teachers are racist. Jones, who is black, had proposed that “implicit bias” training be mandated as part of the classes teachers and staff must undergo if they are to be armed in school.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, -D, West Park, gets a hand shake from Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee, after his amendment failed during debate on a bill that would arm teachers in schools. SCOTT KEELER | Times

Implicit bias refers to the way stereotypes influence a person’s actions without them realizing it. Many major police departments have recently started training on the subject. It can be different than “diversity training” in that it alerts officers about how their preconceived bias can lead to unintended consequences, such as racial profiling.

That amendment failed, however, even though some Republicans were convinced to vote for it.

“There’s a reality that some of us have, that some of you in the front row couldn’t care less about,” Jones said, referring to House Republican leadership before he began to shout into his microphone. “I asked for implicit bias training because we’re talking about black boys and girls that are getting murdered by police officers! ... There are bad police officers and there are bad teachers.”

The debate was shaped by breaking news Tuesday that a law enforcement officer’s gun went off in his holster in Weightman Middle School’s cafeteria in Pasco County. Later in the day, two students were killed and four more people were injured during a shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus.

But Republicans pointed to the commission created to investigate the failings of the Parkland shooting and its recommendation that the Legislature allow classroom teachers to be armed. That commission was led by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He’s become a fixture in Tallahassee, arguing passionately for having more armed protection on campus, in part to plug a shortage of officers or funds to hire law enforcement.

Last year after Parkland, lawmakers created the “Guardian” program that allows staff to carry guns, but excluded teachers who “exclusively perform classroom duties” as a compromise. This bill would undo that exception.

Since the program’s creation, 25 districts have implemented it, though the vast majority of them have instead used it to hire staff whose only role is to be armed security, rather than put guns in the hands of instructional staff.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, pointed out that the law enforcement officer assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland did not engage the shooter.

“The hard truth is we never know how anybody is going to respond … what we do know is (Parkland) Coach Aaron Feis responded the only way he could and he put his body in the way of students,” he said. “The real first responders are the school staff that love our children. They are the real first responders because they are there at the time the tragedy happens.”

Rep. Byron Donalds, R- Naples, speaks in favor of a bill to arm teachers in public schools on the House floor, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. In the back is the bill sponsor Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R- Mt. Dora. The bill passed the House.

During the debate, Democrats accused the Republican majority of blatant partisanship. GOP members voted down all of the Democrats’ more than 20 amendments, some of which proposed to increase training requirements or provided standards for how the guns should be stored.

Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, whose district includes Parkland, said this year feels different than last year’s bipartisan effort to respond to the tragedy.

“A year ago as we were fresh in the horror of what had happened in Parkland … there was compromise and there was goodness in that bill,” Jacobs said. “I don’t feel that way about this bill. I don’t feel the ‘we’ in this bill. … we knew the outcome on my side the minute it came up because we’re not really at the table.”

The bill is not expected to have much impact across most of the Tampa Bay area. School district leaders in Pasco and Hillsborough counties have reiterated their opposition to the idea of armed teachers. And late last week, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego assured staff across the district that the School Board’s decision on the issue last year would stand. The board decided that only “sworn law enforcement officers and highly trained school safety officers” could be armed on campus, Grego said in an email.

Hernando County officials have no plans to allow teachers to carry guns in school, district spokeswoman Karen Jordan said Wednesday. But the legislation would likely prompt the district to revisit the issue, she said.

Other counties, including Polk, St. Johns, Sarasota, Manatee, Duval, Nassau and Orange, have taken similar positions.

On the other side, some districts are planning to take advantage of the provision, including Baker County, where the superintendent has said the idea would provide a first line of defense against a shooter.

The bill also changes who has the authority within each county to decide whether school staff can be armed at school. Under current law, the district and the sheriff’s office must both agree before the program is available. But this bill would give districts the power to seek training for their teachers outside their county if the local sheriff doesn’t want to be part of the training.

Additionally, if a charter school wants to arm their staff in a district that has declined to implement the program, that school can ask a sheriff to provide the training. Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated by private entities.

Other than the highly contentious piece involving guns in classrooms, the bill, Senate Bill 7030, also incorporates a long list of safety procedures and reporting requirements on which both parties largely agree. For example, it lays out more specific guidelines for schools’ mental health programs and creates a standardized, statewide “threat assessment” tool for schools to keep records of students they feel may pose a “behavioral threat” to themselves or others.

The bill passed 65-47, with five Republicans crossing their party line to vote against it, including Reps. Vance Aloupis of Miami and Mike Beltran of Lithia.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jack Evans and assistant metro editor Tom Tobin contributed to this story.