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Florida lawmakers approved arming teachers. So who tracks them?

"This is the dumb, backwards stuff that we do here,” one Florida lawmaker said.
Students and community activists marched in Tampa last year after the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The attack killed 17 people and gave rise to Florida’s school guardian law, which this year was changed to allow classroom teachers to be armed. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure into law. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Sep. 16
Updated Sep. 18

TALLAHASSEE — Since Florida state lawmakers created a program that allowed school employees to be armed, and then expanded it earlier this year to allow classroom teachers to participate, 1,084 of these “guardians” have been assigned to schools across the state.

That number also includes employees who districts have hired solely as security personnel.

But what the state doesn’t track is how many of those 1,084 employees are classroom teachers who have elected to carry a gun on campus, said Damien Kelly, director of the Office of Safe Schools in a presentation to the Senate Education Committee on Monday.

“That’s not data that we ask (districts)," Kelly said. “We don’t ask for any identifying information at all."

That ambivalence on the part of the agency that ostensibly oversees the program drew fire from lawmakers who never supported the idea of arming teachers in the first place.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, told the Times/Herald on Tuesday that for the state to not be closely tracking this program is “b------t.”

“For you to implement a program that does more harm than it does good — and we don’t even know who does it — is absolutely asinine and it’s counterproductive to what the agency for school safety is supposed to be doing,” he said. “This is the dumb, backwards stuff that we do here.”

During Monday’s meeting, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, asked if Kelly could eventually provide lawmakers a specific number of classroom teachers who have chosen to arm themselves.

“Yes sir, we can get that,” Kelly replied.

According to Kelly, 11 districts have said they would like the option to arm instructional staff through the program, which was created after the February 2018 Parkland shooting that left 17 people dead and 17 more injured. Of those 11, however, Kelly said he was unsure how many have chosen to go through the process to implement it, which would mean allowing teachers to volunteer for screening and training through their local sheriff’s office.

Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs the committee and who sponsored the bill that allowed teachers to carry guns, said he’s not bothered by the lack of clarity on the numbers of teachers and districts participating in the program because it’s not required in law.

“I think that’s less important,” he told reporters. “The public may want to know as to how many teachers are we arming but the truth of it is the entire idea behind this is really more of the air marshal concept where you have a person who is trained and responsible at the school.”

This discussion over the state’s responsibility over its program to arm teachers and other staff comes at a time when the effort to implement both the 2018 and 2019 laws responding to the Parkland shooting is in full force, but far from completed. State work groups, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, districts and the Department of Education are all in the midst of complying with the dozens of new requirements, ranging from school infrastructure to mental health services to shooter drills.

Jacob Oliva, chancellor of the division of public schools, told lawmakers that the state has begun training teachers to recognize students experiencing mental health or substance abuse problems, which was mandated by the post-Parkland legislation. However, it could take several years to complete training for all school staff — while those still waiting are taking introductory online courses on the same topic, he said.

“We haven’t arrived,” Oliva said. “We still have work to do."

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the post-Parkland commission, said "there are a lot of wheels in motion" and discussed the added difficulties when some districts "pick and choose" which parts of the law they want to follow. He said some districts have been slow to implement active shooter drills, while others had failed to disseminate their active shooter policies to their staff.

He emphasized that the state is not required to track how many teachers have volunteered to be armed, but that districts would have that information because the implementation of the program is largely managed at the local level.

“There is ... required reporting on the part of any guardian to the Department of Education that discharges a firearm or other things including misconduct,” Gualtieri said. “The fact there is nothing being reported is a very good thing for those of being us objective and fair and want to see it succeed.”

At the local level, though, there have been major hiccups. Palm Beach county recently made headlines when the district outsourced the training of its school security guards to a private company, which was later discovered to be unqualified. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has said he will re-train the recruits, and the district has filed a lawsuit to get its money back from the company.

In Broward County, the district decided to take control over one charter school and considered doing it to a second after the schools were found to not have an armed guard on campus, a requirement under state law.

Gualtieri said he will be recommending that the Legislature revisit the school safety laws again in 2020 to clear up what happened in Palm Beach and ensure no district attempts anything similar.

This legislative session should not be about inventing new requirements for schools, he said, but rather about ensuring “we get things right.”

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