Racial tensions inflamed Florida’s emotional gun debate Thursday as black legislators warned that arming teachers will only expose African-American students to more gun-related danger.
“This is a recipe for disaster,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, the Senate Democratic leader and member of the 28-member black caucus that opposes the school marshals program, the first statewide program of its kind in the country.
In response to the Parkland mass shooting, legislative leaders are seeking changes that include a three-day waiting period and minimum age of 21 to buy any firearm; school safety measures and more school resource officers; expanded mental health treatment; and greater authority for police to seize weapons from people who threaten violence.
Legislators will vote on the changes in the final days of the 2018 session next week.
The most controversial change is the school marshals program, a $67 million program to train and equip teachers and other school employees with concealed weapons during school hours, an idea long backed by the National Rifle Association, which opposes so-called gun-free zones.
“Minority kids are seen as problems, and they’re the ones who are in the school-to-prison pipeline,’’ Braynon said. “They are the ones who overwhelmingly get suspended, and now you’re saying these kids are going to be subject to teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, janitors, that may be armed?”
Data from the state Department of Education shows wide racial disparities between school staff members and students. It also shows that black students are much more likely to be disciplined than white students.
Statewide, 61 percent of all staff members are white; racial minorities make up 61 percent of all students.
The widest disparities are in the rural inland counties of Glades, Hardee and Hendry, all with large minority populations and differences of 40 to 50 percentage points between the staff and student bodies.
Racial disparities are even greater in discipline cases. Statewide, blacks make up 23 percent of all students but accounted for 43 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 38 percent of in-school suspensions in the 2015-16 academic year, the most recent statistics available.
The pattern persists in individual counties. In Hillsborough, black students made up 21 percent of the school population that year but received 47 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
In Broward, home of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, black students received 71 percent of out-of-school suspensions but made up 22 percent of the school population.
Black legislators, all but one of whom are Democrats, are nearly unanimous that more guns is not the way to make schools safer.
They blamed Republicans for years of relaxing gun restrictions that have increased gun violence, and of doing the gun lobby’s bidding by supporting the arming of teachers and opposing a ban on assault weapons.
“Violence, fear and death are becoming the norms for 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds,” said Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale. “People are dying every single day, and if these tragedies aren’t enough to spur this Legislature to take action, I don’t think anything will.”
President Donald J. Trump supports school marshals. Gov. Rick Scott strongly opposes the idea.
Scott visited lawmakers Thursday and was accompanied by Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was one of 17 murder victims in the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.
“I do not believe in arming teachers,” Scott said.
Petty, standing alongside, said he supports Scott’s legislative response to the massacre, which requires a school resource officer for every 1,000 students but does not include marshals.
Addressing the House, Petty pleaded with legislators not to play politics and to pass safety requirements.
Recalling his slain daughter’s volunteer work, he said passing the bill is “her last service project.”
“I’m here to ask each of you to set politics aside at this moment and to come together to make sure we keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them,” Petty said.
I’m here to ask each of you to set politics aside at this moment and to come together to make sure
Under Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law, the state gave legal immunity to anyone who uses lethal force in self-defense.
Black legislators, recalling the fatal shooting in 2012 of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by George Zimmerman, voiced fears that school personnel will use the law to justify shooting black students.
During debate in a House committee Tuesday, Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, asked if an armed teacher had “a right to stand your ground in a classroom if they have the gun and they feel threatened.”
The House member managing the gun legislation, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, replied: “The only way a teacher could use their weapon is if there is a situation for an active shooter.”
Jones asked House leaders to add language to the bill that the self-defense law won’t apply except in active shooter cases. He also asked for a program for cultural bias training, fearing that teachers are more inclined to fear black students than students of other races.
A 2012 Tampa Bay Times analysis of nearly 200 cases, the first to examine the role of race in the stand your ground law, found that people who killed a black person went free 73 percent of the time while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.