Education

If an armed teacher doesn’t intervene in school shooting, will they be arrested, too?

Superintendent Runcie: ‘Don’t put guns in hands of teachers’

When teachers returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for the first time since the massacre, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie called for more resources and support for educators — but drew the line at arming them.
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When teachers returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for the first time since the massacre, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie called for more resources and support for educators — but drew the line at arming them.

New questions are emerging about who is responsible for the safety of others during a mass shooting after Tuesday’s arrest of a Broward County Sheriff’s deputy who hid outside during the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The sponsor of this year’s bill which allowed classroom teachers to carry guns, said Wednesday it’s possible armed teachers could similarly be on the hook, legally, if they don’t do everything required of them to keep kids safe during a shooting.

“Whether it’s involving a firearm or not, if there’s an employee who did not do everything in their power to protect students in that situation they would be open up to facing those kinds of charges,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. “Now, it’s really up to a prosecutor to find where that line where a person has crossed where [failing one’s] employment duties has to pass into criminal.”

He added that this is a question that needs “clarity,” and that lawmakers plan to revisit the post-Parkland school safety laws for the next several years to continue to make tweaks requested by districts and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.

The state’s teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, has opposed the idea of arming teachers in Florida since it was first proposed, arguing more guns in the hands of people who aren’t law enforcement make schools less safe. Tuesday’s arrest of Scot Peterson, however, could make a dangerous law even worse by shifting more liability to teachers, said Fedrick Ingram, president of the union.

“What responsibility do you then have as a volunteer who is saying, ‘I’m going to arm myself?’” Ingram said. “How far does that responsibility go? ... That’s a thought process our teachers should not be faced with.”

Even more unsettling for union members is that in August the state amended the Department of Education’s insurance policy for teachers to exclude coverage for claims arising out of “armed instructional personnel while acting in the scope of their activities for the educational institution.”

That means armed teachers won’t have state coverage in case of lawsuits, said Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents the teachers’ union. That, plus the questions of criminal charges arising out of Peterson’s arrest, “puts people in peril,” he said.

It’s not unheard of for teachers to be charged with neglect of a child, which accounts for seven of the 11 charges Peterson faces, along with perjury and culpable negligence. Media reports depict examples of school staff being slapped with criminal neglect after a teacher’s aide failed to report when two autistic students went missing in Maryland or when a toddler drowned in the presence of a swim instructor near Orlando.

But Peterson’s arrest appears to be an unprecedented punishment for the inaction of a law enforcement officer.

Teachers aside, some law enforcement groups found the criminal charges against Peterson troubling for what it could mean for them in the future. John Kazanjian, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a major police union, said Wednesday that although Peterson’s actions were “unconscionable,” his arrest is “highly concerning and likely to have unintended and unprecedented consequences for good law enforcement officers.”

Yet Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who heads the post-Parkland task force and who has advocated for teachers to be armed, said that Peterson’s arrest is a one-time “anomaly” that sets no precedent.

“We’re talking about a guy who got to the east door of building 12 and heard guns shots and heard Aaron Feis being killed ... turned around and ran to spot of personal safety and hiding,” Gualtieri said, adding that Peterson also lied about his actions in an interview later “to cover for his inaction.”

“Anyone who signs up to do a job who has a responsibility for kids not doing it to the degree Peterson didn’t do it, whether you’re a [school] guardian, whether you’re a cop, or anybody else, I don’t see that happening again,” he said.

Peterson, who has long insisted he acted properly and was unsure of Nikolas Cruz’s location during the shooting, faces nearly 100 years in prison if convicted. Because he was the school resource officer trained to engage an active shooter immediately, Peterson “was responsible for the welfare and safety” of the students and “failed to make a reasonable effort” to protect them, according to an arrest warrant.

At last count, 28 of Florida’s 67 counties are participating in some form with the state’s “Guardian program,” which allows districts to partner with local sheriff’s offices to train and arm school staff or to hire their own security guards, according to a Department of Education presentation. Of those districts, at least four — Bay, Baker, Okaloosa, Suwannee — plan to allow classroom teachers to volunteer to have guns, according to a survey conducted in May by the Florida Education Association.

Senate President Bill Galvano, who was instrumental in the passage of last year’s law that created the Guardian program, declined to comment Wednesday on the question of how Peterson’s arrest could affect armed teachers.

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