Florida Politics

State’s liability insurance now covers armed teachers but not other armed school staff

Florida teachers who are armed on campus will now be covered under the state’s liability insurance, as long as they act within their duties outlined in state law.

The policy change was quietly made by Department of Education officials on Aug. 17, representing a reversal after the department had specifically excluded armed teachers from its policy.

When asked why this policy was changed, Audrey Walden, a department spokeswoman, pointed to information officials provided to the Herald/Times about the change, but declined to comment on the rationale. The department also did not issue any news releases about the adjustment.

The new insurance policy is outlined on a page posted to the department’s website. It details how this new coverage only applies to armed instructional personnel, which leaves other armed staff, such as counselors and administrators, without state legal protection if they are sued for actions taken after volunteering to carry a gun.

Those employees would have to be covered by their local districts.

The “Guardian” program was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature in the aftershock of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The program originally allowed school staff who weren’t exclusively classroom teachers to volunteer to be armed on campus. Then, lawmakers amended it this year to also allow teachers to carry, after being trained and screened by their local sheriff’s office.

Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who sponsored the bill that allows teachers to be armed, said he supports the department’s policy shift.

“The liability policy taken on by the state provides coverage for our public school teachers, [so] I believe it [is] the right move to provide coverage for those that have volunteered for this special duty to our students,” he said in a text message.

Liability has been a persistent question, one that was used as a cudgel by opponents of the program.

One of the lawmakers most steadfastly against the proposal to arm teachers was Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who broke into tears on the House floor during the 2019 session as he expressed his deep-seated fear that black students, some of whom already experience gun violence in their neighborhoods, could fall victim to more guns being on campuses. Jones is black.

He said the back-and-forth by the department over how to cover armed teachers in the case of a lawsuit is further evidence of the unintended complications of this program.

“To totally forget about the other subset of individuals who won’t be covered but also have the opportunity to sign onto the Guardian program is still irresponsible,” Jones said. “This further goes to show why this is a bad idea because we’re trying to fix something as we go.”

“What happens if prior to this going into effect, something would’ve happened at a school?” he added.

Concerns about the legal ramifications of arming school staff were only amplified after Broward County Sheriff Deputy Scot Peterson was arrested on charges of child neglect for his actions during the Parkland shooting. Rather than race into the school where students and staff were being killed, Peterson took cover outside.

The case against Peterson represented rare, if not unprecedented, criminal charges against a Florida law enforcement officer who neglected his duties. It’s unclear whether the same could happen for an armed teacher who did not act according to their training.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the post-Parkland committee that has made recommendations to the Legislature to increase school security, said previously that he could not envision another case like Peterson’s again.

The Department of Education is asking the Legislature for an extra $200,000 to pay for the increased coverage for armed teachers. That’s a small sum in contrast to the state’s $90 billion budget. Teachers are automatically enrolled in that policy, which is part of the state’s blanket coverage for educators.

“I assume that [policy change] was an attempt to answer some of those questions” about liability, said Martin Powell, chief of staff for the statewide teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association.

“They gave an answer to the question of: ‘Will you be there for me?’ ” he added. “But it doesn’t really satisfy the real concerns I’ve heard from many of our members.”

Contact Emily L. Mahoney at emahoney@tampabay.com. Follow @mahoneysthename

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