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Arming teachers? Some officials like the idea, but many educators don't (w/video)

Cori Sorensen, a fourth-grade teacher in Highland, Utah, receives firearms training with a .357 magnum from personal defense instructor Jim McCarthy during concealed weapons training for 200 Utah teachers. Utah is among at least eight states that allow, or don't specifically prohibit, concealed weapons in K-12 schools, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Some want Florida to join that group, but many educators are opposed. [Associated Press | 2012]
Published Feb. 22, 2018

With high school students from Parkland in the Capitol this week advocating for gun control, the bill that would have allowed superintendents and principals to designate trained employees who can carry concealed weapons at school didn't get heard as scheduled.

That did not stop debate over the issue. In fact, it had a growing national audience, spurred on by President Donald Trump's endorsement of the idea on Wednesday.

"If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly," Trump said during a White House event with students and teachers.

RELATED: Rubio faces tough audience at CNN forum, backs some gun restrictions while refusing to disavow NRA

Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, advocated his proposal (SB 1236) Tuesday, suggesting in a radio interview that more guns on campus would make schools safer. His arguments were similar to those an Alabama lawmaker made the same day while proposing near identical legislation.

"I believe that properly trained individuals can stop terrorists and assailants from walking into a school and wreaking havoc for five to seven minutes before law enforcement gets there," Steube said. "Absolutely."

And during a workshop convened by Gov. Rick Scott, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri expressed frustration that Florida had not carried out the idea long ago.

"This isn't new," Gualtieri said. Referring to the Legislature, he added: "Nobody's willing to get off the dime and do something about it."

But such support is not common among the people in charge of running public schools, both in Tampa Bay and beyond. Several suggested that, even if the law offered such authority, it would seldom be used.

"I am not convinced that that is the best way to keep our students safe," Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning said this week.

Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego called the proposal "worrisome," noting it would open the door for someone to carry a firearm without a "tremendous amount of training."

"That scares me, and it should scare parents, too, because that's not what they signed up for," Grego said. "We need to have people with tremendous judgment."

Added Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Sally Harris, who runs a preschool: "I personally have a concealed weapon permit. But I do not think it is a good idea."

Area leaders shared some common concerns.

They worried, for instance, that students might too easily gain access to the firearms.

"The chances are greater that the firearm would fall into the hands of a student than it would protect a student," said Pasco County School Board member Colleen Beaudoin, a veteran teacher, echoing a concern raised by Pasco Sheriff's Sgt. Arthur Morrison, who patrols School Board meetings.

They raised the spectre of a law enforcement officer who responds to a school shooting being unable to discern the authorized armed staff member from the assailant with a gun. They also questioned whether teachers would be forced to leave their students to defend their school — something many teachers have said they would never do — and wondered who would pay for implementation.

"It's ludicrous. Who's going to buy the guns? Who's going to provide the training?" said Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes. "It's just ludicrous. Why don't they just let the teachers teach?"

Florida's two U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, made many of the same points at a CNN town hall event Wednesday night in Broward County. Both of them roundly rejected the idea of training educators to be armed as a first line of defense against school shooters.

Their statements echo those of national groups, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, which addressed the issue in a joint statement just days after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. They spoke against the idea again after Trump's comments.

"We need solutions that will keep guns out of the hands of those who want to use them to massacre innocent children and educators," NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia said Wednesday. "Arming teachers does nothing to prevent that."

The debate breaches statehouse walls, with teachers — and the public — divided on the issue. A poll released this week by ABC News/Washington Post says 42 percent of Americans believe teachers with guns could have prevented the Florida shooting.

A better solution for many? Putting more trained police officers into the schools.

"I just think we're in safer hands with the people that are thoroughly trained," Pinellas County School Board member Terry Krassner said.

Several leaders said lawmakers should make it more difficult to get guns, rather than looking to arm educators.

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

"I think there is a better solution if we logically pass legislation that is what I call gun safety, not gun control," said Hernando County School Board member Susan Duval. "That means the loopholes in the laws that exist today need to be closed. In Florida, you can purchase an assault rifle at the age of 18, but you can't purchase a pistol until you're 21. … What is this, the wild west? C'mon. We should not be sending this message out that we have to strap guns on to protect ourselves."

Pinellas board member Linda Lerner called on her board to pass a resolution to that effect.

"I don't think having more guns in schools is the answer," Lerner said. "We know what the answers are: Ban on assault weapons, more money for mental health services and more money for security that can be done in our buildings."

School officials across Florida have offered a similar list of key needs, and called for more money to make those happen. Lawmakers have not increased school safety funds for five years.

They have begun debating in recent days putting more money into school mental health services and security measures. But, despite the objections of many educators, the idea to train and arm teachers remains part of the mix.

This report includes information from Times staff writers Colleen Wright, Marlene Sokol, Steve Bousquet and Megan Reeves, and from Associated Press. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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