Florida Governor Signs Divisive Bill Allowing for Armed Teachers

By Evie Blad — May 08, 2019 4 min read
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed into law Wednesday a divisive measure that will allow schools to arm classroom teachers, part of a longer list of school safety changes made at the recommendation of a task force that reviewed last year’s mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The bill expands eligibility for a program created a month after the February 2018 shooting that allows districts to partner with local sheriff’s offices to train and arm some personnel. The Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, named for a coach who died in the Stoneman Douglas attack, originally limited participation to non-instructional staff.

The bill DeSantis signed Wednesday removes that restriction, allowing teachers to volunteer to carry a firearm with district approval. Florida law requires all schools to have at least one armed “school guardian” or school law enforcement officer on site.

The bill signing came a day after a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch near Denver, where a child died and eight others were injured Tuesday.

The move to arm teachers sparked strong opposition from some, including some Parkland students who packed the state capitol to protest as lawmakers considered the measure. Those students, and advocates for stricter gun laws around the country, fear that the presence of more guns in schools may cause confusion in the event of a crisis. Teachers can’t maintain the amount of ongoing firearms training necessary to respond to an active shooter situation, they argued. And some cite incidents of mishandled guns at schools around the country.

But others, including the sheriff who led the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, believe the presence of more armed adults in schools will lessen response times and deter potential gunmen.

“The schools across Florida need a change in their culture,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chaired the commission and initially opposed arming teachers, said last year. He changed his mind after viewing security footage of the shooting in Parkland.

“Yes, those teachers are great people doing great work and they need to be able to teach, but you can’t teach dead kids. Safety has to come first,” Gualtieri said.

In some states that already allow teachers to be armed, rural districts say the move provides an extra measure of security when law enforcement are far from their campuses. And a federal school safety commission chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last year in response to the Florida shooting recommended that schools consider arming teachers, but it provided no mandates or resources to do so.

And after a debate on the issue, some Democratic lawmakers have filed resolutions that would clarify that the U.S. Department of Education cannot allow school districts to use federal funds to pay for firearms or firearms training for teachers.

But it’s unlikely Broward County, home of Parkland, will take advantage of the new freedom to arm Florida teachers. Educators there spoke out in opposition to the idea in the early days after the 2018 shooting, the school board adopted a resolution in opposition, and Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony, appointed by DeSantis, has said he opposes it.

“Sworn police officers undergo extensive firearm training to respond to crisis scenarios, and we continue working on our skills and discipline throughout our careers. Teachers enter that profession to educate children, not to serve as school security,” Tony wrote in a letter to the school board.

“Not only does public opinion indicate that this is not something teachers, parents, or students want, but many recognize that stress, fear, and the rapid response needed may put both students and teachers at extreme risk,” he wrote. “Having untrained personnel carrying firearms is more likely to create a tragic scenario where innocent people can get injured or killed.”

The bill DeSantis signed also included several other measures that won broader approval, including a standardized risk assessment for students who may present a threat to themselves or others, the creation of a working group to review “campus hardening policies,” a greater flexibility in how schools can spend state money targeted toward student mental health.

Learn more about the debate over arming teachers in this story Education Week correspondent Kavitha Cardoza reported for the PBS Newshour.

Photo: Drug and gun-free school zone signs in Phoenix, Ariz. --Matt York/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.