When state legislators passed a controversial school safety bill last year that required every public school to have an armed guard, they did not allow classroom teachers to be among those armed in a volunteer initiative called the guardian program.
But last week, lawmakers changed course and passed legislation that would include classroom teachers among those who can be armed under the program. Guardians do not have to be law enforcement officers in order to carry a gun on campus, but they do have to undergo vetting and training through local Sheriff’s offices.
The bill comes after a January report drafted by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission—led by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri—recommended that the Legislature expand the guardian program to include teachers.
“Further, the Florida legislature should expand the Guardian Program to allow teachers who volunteer—in addition to those now authorized—who are properly selected, thoroughly screened and extensively trained to carry concealed firearms on campuses for self-protection, and the protection of other staff and students in response to an active assailant incident," the report reads.
Since last year, 28 of the state’s 67 school districts have implemented the guardian program in some capacity, according to numbers provided this week by the Florida Department of Education. The state initially earmarked $67 million for districts to incorporate this program, but by the start of this school year, $58 million of that money had gone unused.
At the time, former Gov. Rick Scott pushed for that money to be disseminated to local school districts for other school security features, but state legislators shot that down.
Local school districts, including Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando, had already rejected the prospect of arming teachers, though Hernando County officials have said the legislation may cause them to reconsider the topic.
Other counties, like Baker County, have come out in support of the plan.
But how do teachers on the ground each day actually feel about this bill that could put guns in some of their hands?
The Tampa Bay Times connected with teachers through social media to hear their thoughts. We called for responses from teachers on Twitter, connected to a Facebook group of Florida teachers and conducted personal interviews.
We spoke with nine teachers from across the state to hear their thoughts on the prospect of arming teachers as part of the guardian program.
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Florida teachers talk guns in the classroom
James Washington, Pasco County Schools, Gulf High School
“That’s not why we got into the classroom and it’s another frustrating thing that we’re being asked to do. I know it’s voluntary right now, but at some point, students are going to start losing trust and not going to know which teachers are carrying and which aren’t. We’re all going to be lumped into this barrel of teachers now who are carrying weapons. That bond that we’re going to be able to create fluidly is now going to be interrupted.” —James Washington
Tim Harris, Hillsborough County Schools, George Steinbrenner High School
“From my experience, teachers have so much on their plates anyway. In addition to delivering curriculum, we’re counselors, sometimes fill-in parents, sometimes we have to act as friends. There’s just so many roles that teachers already play. To pile on another role is not very realistic for anyone who has actually taught in a public school... It makes me really nervous, I don’t think it’s what’s best for students.” — Tim Harris
Steve Stokes, Bay District Schools, J.R. Arnold High School
“Personally, I’m very thankful. I had applied and requested to be in this year—I’m retired military, 22 years. It just makes sense for teachers like myself who are credentialed. I wouldn’t offer it up to just anybody. Last year, we had a fire drill right after Stoneman Douglas. At that time, we had to take our students to the back of the school. Some girls were in tears. I wished I had some way to protect them. We need more people on campus. One armed officer — it’s not enough to protect 1,000 kids.” — Steve Stokes
Kimmie Foster, Polk County Schools, Cypress Junction Montessori School
“I think it’s a bad idea. ...I feel like we do so much for so very little. I would have no problem stepping in front of a bullet but I would have a problem murdering someone.” — Kimmie Foster
Gail Foreman, Sarasota County Schools, Booker High School
“You want guns in the classrooms? Fine, give teachers either paintball guns or let’s use training guns, because a training red gun with a rubber bullet will stop a kid or stop a gunman and it’s not lethal. Nobody comes into teaching to shoot a kid." — Gail Foreman
Judy Lindquist, Orange County Schools, Andover Elementary
“As a 25-year public school teacher in Florida, I think arming teachers is by far one of the worst ideas ever employed. It will do nothing to increase student and school safety, yet it will, without a doubt, bring more uncertainty and risks to schools and students." — Judy Lindquist
Diane Griffiths, Sarasota County Schools, Booker High School
“I do not believe that guns are the answer. My issue is that every child in a school that has gotten shot up at school has had mental issues. We need to reach the kids and have more mental health care and that is where we are going to be preventative, where we don’t need to have guns.” — Diane Griffiths
Dana Cottrell, Hernando County Schools, F.W. Springstead High School, current and former candidate for Congress
“There’s not one teacher I’ve spoken to that wants this program. We’re in this because we love kids and we love to teach. If we wanted to be law enforcement, we would’ve gone into that field. ...We understand we need funding for schools. Our suggestions have gone not listened to. ...Now you’re telling us to go shoot the kids.” — Dana Cottrell
Janet Brody, Sarasota County Schools, Suncoast Technical College
“Nobody is trying to take anybody’s second amendment away. We are only asking for a common sense approach and to spend the money on proven measures like hardening our schools and hiring sworn law enforcement. Since when do we recruit teachers to do the work of law enforcement?”—Janet Brody