Florida Senate passes bill to arm teachers

A Broward Sheriff deputy (in red) trains applicants for Broward County's "guardian" program on July 30, 2018, at the firing range in Markham Park in Sunrise. 
Photo courtesy South Florida Sun 

A controversial school safety bill was passed in the Florida Senate Tuesday. SB 7030 — titled Implementation of Legislative Recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School Public Safety Commission — was approved after nearly 90 minutes of back-and-forth debate by a divided Senate on a 22-17 vote.

The measure is an expansion of the school “guardian” program to allow armed classroom teachers. The program was created last year on recommendations from a commission formed in the wake of the Parkland massacre where a gunman shot and killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School. So far, 25 Florida districts have approved participating in the guardian program.

Several Republicans argued in favor of the bill. Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz, Jr., the bill’s chief sponsor, argued the voluntary nature of the guardian program for local school districts, while stating that any teacher who wishes to opt in will be subject to psychological evaluations, background screenings and training on how to handle active shooter situations.

“This bill does not arm one single, solitary teacher. What this bill does is provide the 67 school districts, the 67 different communities in this state, with the ability to do what they need to do to protect our kids,” Diaz said.

Over and over during Tuesday’s debate on the Senate floor, Republican lawmakers repeatedly argued that there were about four minutes from the time the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School began until it was over.

They also pointed out how the school resource officer, former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson, did not enter the building and the 11 minutes it took for the first officer to arrive at the scene of the shooting. Republicans argued that allowing teachers the freedom to be armed could have stopped the shooter and prevented the tragedy from happening.

But Democrats stood united against the bill. Senator and former Leon County Superintendent Bill Montford called for the Legislature to provide districts with the money to hire “real, true, well-trained law enforcement” instead of arming teachers.

“What I have noticed in the last 40 years is that teachers have been asked to take on the responsibilities that our communities simply can't address,” Montford said. “When parents fail, we ask our teachers to be parents. When the mental health services fail, we ask our teachers to be counselors. When social services fail, we ask our teachers to be social workers. Now one more time — one more time — when the safety of our students are at risk, we're asking our teachers to be law enforcement people. And that's wrong.”

Montfort said that he knows the program is voluntary, but after working in education for 40 years, he also knows that teachers will feel the pressure to volunteer.

“What we're telling teachers is that if you want protection for you and your children, then do it yourself,” Montford said.

The only Republican to cross party lines and vote against the bill was Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. A similar House bill (HB 7093) has moved through committees but has not come up on the House floor for a vote.