Florida Legislature takes on debate over school security

The families of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman opened fire on schoolchildren and staff in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.
The families of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman opened fire on schoolchildren and staff in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.
Published March 13, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Allow gun-toting teachers. Make lockdown drills as routine as fire drills. Boost local taxes to specifically pay for security at schools.

Three months after a gunman killed 26 students and teachers at a Connecticut elementary school, lawmakers in Florida are proposing a flurry of bills aimed at making schools more secure.

Some of the ideas are getting serious consideration. Among them: a proposal from Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, that would enable counties to levy a special tax for school resource officers and mental health services for students. Sobel's bill won the support of a Senate education panel Tuesday.

But others are far less likely to gain traction, including a controversial proposal to let teachers carry concealed weapons on school grounds.

"I have yet to meet anybody who thinks it's a good idea to have kindergarten teachers packing heat," said Melissa Erickson, of the Hillsborough Alliance for Public Schools. "Parents want to see well-thought-out action, not knee-jerk reactions that don't actually keep our kids safe."

Fatal shootings rarely happen at schools. Experts say children are far more likely to be injured or die while traveling to school than in a violent incident on school property.

Yet, in the aftermath of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers across the country have renewed the debate on school security.

"Every time we have a major incident like (the shootings at) Columbine or Virginia Tech, we see new legislation on school safety for the next two years," said Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council.

The most contentious of the Florida proposals would let superintendents and principals designate school employees to carry concealed weapons. Schools not wishing to have an armed employee would be required to hire a school safety officer.

Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican and the bill's sponsor, said the legislation is intended to give flexibility to principals.

"If they want to designate one (teacher), if they want to designate many (teachers), they can," Steube told reporters. "It's going to be completely up to the principal logistically how they want to implement the legislation."

But the idea has its critics, including the state teachers' union.

"We know there are ways to make our schools safer, and we're interested in having that discussion," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association. "But we're not sure that having more guns on the street is going to make schools safer."

Sen. Jeff Brandes would like to see a different approach. The St. Petersburg Republican is proposing schools hold lockdown drills as often as they hold fire drills.

"We have two areas of concern: things that require us to get children out of schools, and things that require us to secure children inside the classroom," he said. "We should be ready for both."

Since the Connecticut shooting, parents, teachers and school administrators have been calling for additional security and more mental health services for students. Funding those initiatives may prove challenging. School districts don't have extra money for new safety measures. Neither does the state Department of Education.

To that end, Sobel's bill would allow counties to create a special taxing district for the purpose of enhancing school security.

"This is not a mandate," Sobel told the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. "It's up to the voters. The voters in your county will decide whether this special taxing district should be created."

Some members of the committee expressed reservations about allowing a new tax. The panel ultimately approved the measure 7-1.

Separately, Sen. Dwight Bullard has filed legislation that would require some of the state's firearms and ammunition taxes be spent on school safety initiatives.

"What this bill does, in essence, is put the burden where it belongs," said Bullard, a Miami Democrat. "Those who desire to own guns now become the funders of school-safety programs."

The bill would also enable members of the public to surrender firearms at schools without facing charges.

Bullard acknowledges that his proposal has a limited chance of moving this year. "I haven't gotten the official word from the NRA, but I'm pretty sure they're against it," he quipped.

Still, he's hoping the bill gets a hearing before the 60-day session ends in May.

School board members like Miami-Dade's Raquel Regalado will be paying close attention.

Regalado said she is pleased to see state lawmakers take an interest in improving school security. But she isn't sure Tallahassee is the best place for the discussion to take place.

"Not every community is the same," Regalado said. "Empowering school districts to address the problem in a way that fits their community is the right conversation to have."

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.