March 27, 2013

Gun-toting teachers? House education panel says ‘yes’

Despite strong opposition from parents and educators, a bill that would allow teachers to carry concealed weapons on school property got an early OK from a House panel.

Picture this: teachers packing heat as they teach children their ABC’s and 123’s.

The scenario has many parents and teachers envisioning a nightmare, and they have gone out of their way to tell state legislators so.

But on Wednesday, a House education panel approved the idea anyway.

The House K-12 Education Subcommittee voted 10-3 in support of a controversial bill that would give principals the power to choose certain teachers and school employees who would carry concealed weapons on campus. The schools would have a choice of either arming a school employee or hiring a separate safety officer, who would also carry a firearm.

Rep. Greg Steube, the bill’s sponsor, amended his proposal slightly before Wednesday’s meeting. It now requires the firearm to remain on the employee’s body throughout the school day, as opposed to being stored in a lockbox in an office, and applies to both public and private schools.

Steube, a Sarasota Republican, stressed that school employees would be required to undergo extensive training before bringing a firearm to campus. He says the idea is popular. “I’ve been getting feedback from principals all over the state about how strongly they support an initiative like this,” Steube said.

But the bill has met resistance from parent groups, local school boards and the state teachers’ union, who adamantly oppose the idea of allowing guns on school property.

Florida School Boards Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton said the law would place a “huge” liability on school systems.

“Our teachers and principals are role models,” Blanton added. “You are going to send the wrong message to these students.”

Colleen Wood, a parent activist in St. Johns County, called the proposal “an embarrassing excuse for a safety policy.”

“Handling a shooter in a school is serious business,” she said. “It requires serious training, not just a gun and a concealed weapons permit.”

Steube’s proposal is contentious, but it isn’t without precedent. Some school districts in Texas allow select teachers to carry concealed weapons in schools. Similar proposals are under consideration in Oklahoma and Arizona.

Last year, lawmakers in Michigan passed a law allowing concealed weapons in public schools and day-care centers. The proposal was vetoed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

In Florida, the bill prompted a debate Wednesday that was rich with rhetoric. Most members of the House panel expressed their support for the measure.

“In our overwhelming desire to keep our children safe in gun-free zones, we have inadvertently made them the ideal sterile target for a madman,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “Evil is real. It’s in the world. It will happen again. Is anybody going to be prepared?”

Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, said she, too, “embraced” the bill.

“I would hope that if a madman were to walk on a campus where my children were and his goal was to die and to take as many children [as possible] with him, there would be somebody there to stop that man from murdering my children, and that somebody would take him out before he could do that,” she said.

A trio of Democratic committee members opposed the proposal, including Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, of Deerfield Beach.

“Personally I am against guns,” Clarke-Reed said. “I don’t like them. I don’t even like to see them.”

Rep. Randolph Bracy, of Orlando, expressed concerns about possible “unintended consequences” before casting his vote against the bill.

But Bracy, Clarke-Reed and Rep. Richard Stark, of Weston, were unable to muster enough support to defeat the proposal. It passed with the support of the committee’s eight Republicans, and Democratic Reps. Karen Castor Dentel and Carl F. Zimmermann.

Castor Dentel, a teacher, said she intended to vote against the bill, but changed her mind during the debate.

Steube’s bill still has a long way to go. To advance to the floor, it must now win the support of three additional committees. And the window for committee meetings is quickly shrinking.

Steube hopes the bill continues to move.

“Most counties do not have the funds to put a school resource officer in every elementary school,” he said. If the bill becomes law, Steube said, it would go a long way toward filling the gap.

Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com

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