Arming teachers brings contentious debate in Florida Senate

Posted at 4:13 PM, Apr 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-17 16:13:48-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Democrats failed to strip language out of a Florida Senate school safety bill that would expand a law allowing some teachers to carry guns in school. They argued Wednesday that more guns in school could make them more dangerous.

Senators spent nearly two hours debating proposed amendments to a wide-ranging bill that would revise a law passed last year after 17 people were killed at a Parkland High School. The bill seeks to act on several recommendations of a commission formed to study the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the most contentious of which could allow more teachers to be armed.

A law enacted last year allows some classroom teachers to volunteer to carry weapons after they undergo training and psychological evaluations in districts that adopt the "guardian program." But those teachers also have to have a role outside the classroom, such as an athletic coach. The bill being considered would allow any teacher to participate, and that frightens Democrats.

Democratic Sen. Oscar Braynon said there were 34 confrontations between students and teachers last year in Miami-Dade County, where he lives.

"Do we think it benefits those confrontations if we insert a firearm?" Braynon asked. "That happened 34 times. How many school shootings have we had in the past 200 years? One."

Braynon suggested that if teachers shoot students and claim self-defense, they'd likely be acquitted by juries. It was a reference to Florida's "stand your ground" law that allows the use of deadly force if someone feels threatened.

"I don't want us to even be in that position. I don't want that teacher to be in that position. I don't want the students to feel like there's a possibility that they can be in that position, because it changes the whole mindset of what that child feels when they walk into that school," Braynon said. "In my district, there are children that are living with gun violence every day outside of school. The school is a safe space for them. The teacher is a safe space for them. Let's not inject this into that safe space."

Republican Sen. Manny Diaz, who is ushering the bill through the Senate, said districts don't have to arm teachers, but noted in some rural areas, the nearest law enforcement officer may be 20 minutes away if there is a school shooting. Other Republicans also argued that no teacher or district would be forced to arm teachers. So far, 25 of Florida's 67 school districts have approved participation in the guardian program.

"We're not telling the school district to do it. We are letting that school district understand their community, their teachers," said Republican Sen. Gayle Harrell. "We are not imposing this on anyone. We are saying this is an option — a tool in the tool box that may meet your needs. This is really a way that we can protect our children."

Democrats said they support other aspects of the bill, which includes provisions requiring schools to report violent incidents, an increased focus on properly assessing and responding to potentially threatening behavior and requiring schools to promote suspicious activity reporting tools.

The Senate is schedule to vote on the bill Tuesday. A similar bill is being considered by the House.