After about seven hours of angry, sometimes deeply painful debate about race and gun violence that spanned two days, the Florida House passed a bill Wednesday that would allow classroom teachers to be armed, expanding a program lawmakers created last year after the Parkland shooting.
The debate reached emotional heights that had Democrats shouting or tearing up as black lawmakers delved into details about their personal experiences with racism and their deep-seated fears about minority children being targeted by teachers who have guns.
The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who expressed early support for it. For teachers and other staff to be armed, school districts must opt-in to the so-called “Guardian program,” which allows teachers and other staff to volunteer to carry a gun on campus after undergoing screening and training by a local sheriff’s office.
The Miami-Dade County school district has agreements with local agencies to staff every school with a sworn officer. Voters in November overwhelmingly approved a property tax hike that provided funding to hire more officers for the district’s own police department to staff schools.
“From what I’ve heard from a number of my colleagues, particularly here in the South Florida community, will not be opting into the program, either,” said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho on Wednesday. “I think they’ve paid close attention to the stakeholder communities of parents and teachers to rely on professional entities whether they are police officers or armed guards.
“I appreciate the fact that the legislators did not make this a mandate, it is an opt-in,” he added. “Respectfully, in Miami-Dade, we believe that safety and security shall be provided by law enforcement, the only entities allowed to carry firearms into schools, not teachers.”
The Broward County school district also passed its own referendum in August to raise money for officers in schools. Broward was not able to strike agreements with local agencies and reluctantly participated in the guardian program.
In a statement, Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said the district will not arm teachers under the expanded program.
“The Broward County School Board voted on a resolution against arming teachers in March 2018,” he said. “We do not believe arming teachers is the best way to make our schools safe.”
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park who is widely known as a polite speaker and someone with friends on both sides of the aisle, yelled into his microphone Tuesday after a Republican said that one of Jones’ amendments implied that teachers are racist. Jones, who is black, had proposed that “implicit bias” training be mandated as part of the classes teachers and staff must undergo if they are to be armed in school.
Implicit bias refers to the way stereotypes influence a person’s actions without them realizing it. Many major police departments have recently started training on the subject. It can be different than “diversity training” in that it alerts officers about how their preconceived bias can lead to unintended consequences, such as racial profiling.
That amendment failed, however, even though some Republicans were persuaded to vote for it.
“There’s a reality that some of us have, that some of you in the front row couldn’t care less about,” Jones said, referring to House Republican leadership before he began to shout into his microphone. “I asked for implicit bias training because we’re talking about black boys and girls that are getting murdered by police officers! ... There are bad police officers and there are bad teachers.”
The debate was shaped by breaking news Tuesday that a law enforcement officer’s gun went off in his holster in Weightman Middle School’s cafeteria in Pasco County. Later in the day, two students were killed and four more people were injured during a shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus.
Parkland commission’s report
But Republicans pointed to the commission created to investigate the failings of the Parkland shooting and its recommendation that the Legislature allow classroom teachers to be armed. That commission was led by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He’s become a fixture in Tallahassee, arguing passionately for having more armed protection on campus, in part to plug a shortage of officers or funds to hire law enforcement.
Last year after Parkland, lawmakers created the “Guardian” program that allows staff to carry guns, but excluded teachers who “exclusively perform classroom duties” as a compromise. This bill would undo that exception.
Since the program’s creation, 25 districts have implemented it, though the vast majority of them have instead used it to hire staff whose only role is to be armed security, rather than put guns in the hands of instructional staff.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, pointed out that the law enforcement officer assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland did not engage the shooter.
“The hard truth is we never know how anybody is going to respond. … What we do know is Coach Aaron Feis responded the only way he could and he put his body in the way of students,” he said. “The real first responders are the school staff that love our children. They are the real first responders because they are there at the time the tragedy happens.”
Accusations of partisanship
During the debate, Democrats accused the Republican majority of blatant partisanship. GOP members voted down all of the Democrats’ more than 20 amendments, some of which proposed to increase training requirements or provided standards for how the guns should be stored.
Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, whose district includes Parkland, said this year feels different than last year’s bipartisan effort to respond to the tragedy.
“A year ago as we were fresh in the horror of what had happened in Parkland … there was compromise and there was goodness in that bill,” Jacobs said. “I don’t feel that way about this bill. I don’t feel the ‘we’ in this bill. … We knew the outcome on my side the minute it came up because we’re not really at the table.”
The bill also changes who has the authority within each county to decide whether school staff can be armed at school. Under current law, the district and the sheriff’s office must both agree before the program is available. But this bill would give districts the power to seek training for their teachers outside their county if the local sheriff doesn’t want to be part of the training.
Additionally, if a charter school wants to arm its staff in a district that has declined to implement the program, that school can ask a sheriff to provide the training. Charter schools are publicly funded schools sometimes operated by private entities.
Other than the highly contentious piece involving guns in classrooms, the bill, Senate Bill 7030, also incorporates a long list of safety procedures and reporting requirements on which both parties largely agree. For example, it lays out more specific guidelines for schools’ mental health programs and creates a standardized, statewide “threat assessment” tool for schools to keep records of students they feel may pose a “behavioral threat” to themselves or others.
The bill passed 65-47, with five Republicans crossing their party line to vote against it, including Reps. Vance Aloupis of Miami and Mike Beltran of Lithia.
The Senate had passed the bill 22-17, with all but one Republican in favor and all Democrats opposed.
Miami Herald reporter Colleen Wright contributed to this report.