Lawmakers OK arming teachers, but sheriff and School District still opposed

A controversial bill passed the Florida House Wednesday by a 65-47 vote to expand a statewide program allowing teachers to carry guns on public school campuses.

The bill was sent to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law. The measure passed the Florida Senate 22 to 17 last week.

The measure expands an existing school “guardian” program to allow any teacher to volunteer to carry a weapon after undergoing police-style training and a psychiatric evaluation.

The bill builds upon a massive $400 million piece of legislation passed last April in the wake of a fatal school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland that left 17 people dead last year.

That law mandated – among other things – that either an armed security guard, a guardian or a school resource officer (SRO) be placed in every public school statewide – along with two at every high school. Each county can chose whether to implement a guardian program or not.

The guardian option was cheaper than hiring highly trained armed law enforcement officers to police schools. But the idea was also controversial and unpopular in many areas.

One key change in the new 2019 bills place guardian opt-in power in the hands of the school district – not sheriff’s offices.  Currently, schools may only use guardians if the local school board and sheriff agree on the decision.

That wasn’t the case in Osceola County, where both the sheriff and school board agreed on arming cops instead of educators.

Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson publicly denounced arming teachers last year.

“I’m dead set against it,” said Gibson at a March 5, 2018 County Commission meeting. “Arming teachers is the wrong thing to do, and I will not do that as the sheriff of Osceola County.”

Gibson said he still maintains that position today.

As for the Osceola County School District, Public Information Officer Dana Schafer said that the School Board has chosen to go the route of exclusively utilizing SROs.

“No board member has brought up the topic at a public meeting to change this practice,” Schafer said.

She noted that board members would need to discuss the topic publicly first - and that has not happened.

Other than the highly contentious piece involving guns in classrooms, the bill, Senate Bill 7030, and its companion bill, HB 7033, also incorporates a long list of safety procedures and reporting requirements on which both political parties largely agree.

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 2019 Florida Legislative Session ended Friday.