TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida teachers who volunteer could be permitted to carry guns in classrooms so long as they undergo firearms training and a mental health evaluation under legislation approved Tuesday by a state Senate committee.
The Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee voted 5-3 for a broad school safety bill containing the armed teacher provision. Teachers would only be eligible for the so-called guardian program if their local school board approves and they meet the other criteria.
The bill is a reaction to the February 2018 massacre that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. It also contains expanded student mental health services and sections regarding physical hardening of school campuses, but arming teachers is the most controversial provision.
The main sponsor, Republican Sen. Manny Diaz of Hialeah Gardens, said the Stoneman Douglas shooter might have been stopped with less loss of life if a trained teacher had been carrying a gun.
“Had they had the opportunity to defend themselves and these kids, they would have stopped that assailant,” Diaz said. “At the end of the day, a guardian or school safety officer is the last line of defense.”
Like its House counterpart, the bill would require more than 100 hours of firearms training for teachers who seek to join the guardian program. None would be required to take part and it would be up to local school boards to decide to whether to approve it. So far, 25 Florida school districts have guardian programs, put current law prohibits teachers whose sole focus is the classroom from joining.
“It remains optional. No teacher is obligated to do this. No district is obligated to do this,” Diaz said.
Opponents, including Democrats, many teacher groups and parent organizations, raised numerous objections centering on whether teachers should be transformed into essentially law enforcement personnel. They also worry about lost weapons, how police would know an armed teacher isn’t an assailant in a chaotic mass shooting and whether a teacher might mistakenly shoot a child or fellow staff member.
The Republican-led committee voted down amendments by Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa to remove the armed teacher provision and another amendment by Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of classrooms with gun-toting teachers.
“Teachers have a paramount duty to educate our children,” Cruz said. “They shouldn’t be asked to carry a gun as well. Classroom teachers should be armed with higher salaries and benefits, not firearms.”
Supporters, however, noted that a state commission set up to investigate the Stoneman Douglas shooting recommended arming teachers who volunteer as long as their school board wants the program.
“We’re working very hard to figure out a way to keep our kids safe on the limited resources we have,” said GOP Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, the committee chairman. “I wish we had better options.”
The Senate and House versions are moving through committees and eventually will be set for a floor vote. A final compromise would have to be worked out before a final bill is ready to send to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Nikolas Cruz, 20, is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the Parkland shooting. His lawyers have said he would plead guilty in return for a life prison sentence, but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Trial is tentatively set for early 2020.