STILL THE ‘GUNSHINE STATE’

The day after a gun went off accidently in a Florida classroom, lawmakers approved a school safety bill that allows teachers to be armed.

Gun
TAIMY ALVAREZ/SUN SENTINEL/TNS
In April 2018, more than 70 students from Pembroke Pines Charter High School marched from their school to Pembroke Pines City Hall – some six miles away – holding signs and chanting against gun violence and for gun control in memory of the Columbine school shooting.

BY SKYLER SWISHER
SUN SENTINEL / TNS

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Legislature is sending a controversial bill to the governor that allows teachers to carry guns on campus, despite protests from educators and students urging them not to put more firearms in schools.

The Florida House voted 65-47 Wednesday in favor of the school safety measure, which prompted hours of heated and emotional debate.

The Legislature passed the bill in response to last year’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students and staff dead.

For ‘good guys’

Rep. Chuck Brannan, R-Macclenny, said allowing the arming of school staff will serve as a powerful deterrent for anyone thinking of harming students.

“This bill is the ultimate school-hardening law,” said Brannan, a retired law enforcement officer from rural North Florida. “It allows the good guy to stop the bad. … The bad guy will never know when the good guy is going to be there to shoot back.”

As state lawmakers clashed in the heated debate in Tallahassee, a school resource officer accidentally fired a gun at a Pasco County middle school.

Democrats in the Florida House used the breaking news alert during an emotional debate Tuesday as part of their efforts to highlight why they think teachers shouldn’t be allowed to carry guns on campus.

‘Mistakes’ will happen

“This program is going to go in, and there are going to be mistakes,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. “A gun went off today in Pasco County in a middle school in the cafeteria. Happened today – today while we were doing this bill.”

Jenne wanted to see more training requirements for school employees who carry guns as part of the state’s armed school guardian program.

The school resource officer was leaning against a wall when his holstered gun fired, sending a bullet into the wall behind him, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. No one was injured, officials said.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, RMount Dora, clarified that the gun was fired by a sworn law enforcement officer – not a member of the school guardian program being discussed by lawmakers.

“The gun that went off today was not by a guardian holding it,” said Sullivan, the bill’s sponsor. “It was by an SRO.”

‘It was a gun’

Supporters said the bill would require at least 144 hours of training for teachers who want to carry a gun on campus, which would be sufficient to ensure student safety. That didn’t satisfy Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, who expressed shock at what he was hearing.

“I don’t care who had the gun go off,” he said. “We had kids there. … It was a gun. It was a bullet that you can’t bring back. Listen to what we are saying. This is insane.”

Urban areas say no

Although the bill appears likely to be signed into law, local school boards must authorize the arming of teachers. Teachers would have to complete at least 144 hours of training and pass a psychological evaluation.

School boards representing some of the state’s largest counties – including Broward, Palm Beach and Orange – are opposed to the idea. It appears unlikely school districts in Central and South Florida would authorize arming teachers.

Democrats said even giving school boards the option of arming educators is a step too far.

‘A loving environment’

“Teachers need to teach,” said Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Davie. “We need to create a more nurturing, loving environment in a school so people don’t grow up to become monsters. … We are creating a police state. It is wrong.”

Supporters said a last line of defense is needed in schools, and the bill provides more flexibility for districts to meet a state mandate that an armed guard be stationed at every school.

The Parkland school shooting where 17 died and 17 others were injured was over in about four minutes.

“Our law enforcement officers failed us on Feb 14, 2018,” said Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral. “When they can’t get there to save others, I would hope that someone else in that room has the ability to do so.”

Students protest

Students, including some from Stoneman Douglas, protested in the Capitol and urged lawmakers not to authorize the arming of teachers. They voiced concerns that arming teachers would have unintended consequences, putting them at risk of accidental shootings.

Democrats expressed concerns that the bill doesn’t provide enough guidance on the safe storage and handling of guns at schools. They wanted more training requirements and annual psychological evaluations.

The Giffords Law Center blasted the Republican-controlled Legislature’s action, saying it will make schools more dangerous. The group, which supports gun control measures, compiled a list of more than 60 instances over a four-year span where guns had been mishandled on school property by teachers, security officers and others.

The bill features other items aimed at school safety, including greater reporting of school safety incidents, a standardized risk assessment process for dangerous students, and new guidelines on school-based mental health.

Divisive provision

Democratic Rep. Kristin Jacobs, who represents the Parkland area, called the provision that allows teachers to be armed a “poison pill” that created a partisan divide in an otherwise good bill.

“The bill today I would put forth was not an effort that includes ‘we’,” she said, “It is an effort of ‘us and them.’”

Five Republicans crossed the aisle to vote against the bill, including the only Broward-based GOP representative, Chip LaMarca.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been supportive of the school safety package.

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