Florida’s Push to “Arm Teachers”, Explained

Now that the Florida Legislature has opened their 2019 session, a lot of political debates are coming to a head. Of the most divisive policies the legislators will be voting on, one – if passed – would allow teachers to be armed on campus under certain circumstances. Many columnists in Florida have lamented this policy with headlines like “Oh, Florida! Give all those bad teachers a gun — what could go wrong?” and “Arming teachers is a well-intentioned but ill-conceived idea” but their characterization of the issue is inaccurate.

To understand the context of this proposal one has to go back to last year when a mass shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School within a month of the legislature’s opening. Pressure was on to make changes and prevent another shooting, leading to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act being passed. In addition to raising the age limit of gun ownership and developing a ‘red flag’ system for cops to apprehend weapons from gun owners, the bill required each school district to have at least one armed safety officer at each school. Generally, these safety officers were hired deputies from the local sheriff’s office but the bill provided alternatives.

The Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program it established allowed certain school staff to assume the role of a safety officer. Aaron Feis was a coach and security monitor at MSD. He responded to the scene of the shooting unarmed and was killed while Broward County Deputy, Scott Peterson, hid behind a wall nearby, gun in hand. The program named after him would have allowed him to carry a gun on campus after completing at least 132 hours of training and upon the approval of both the local sheriff and his school administrators. So called ‘guardians’ could act as safety officers in schools where a sheriff’s deputy could not be provided. Teachers, however, are barred from participating in the program.

However, the MSD Public Safety Commission (established by the MSD Public Safety Act) recommended in their January report that teachers be allowed to join the guardian program. Bob Gualtieri, the commission’s chairman and the Pinellas County Sheriff, was one of the main proponents of this recommendation. One of Gualtieri’s defenses of the bill was that certain densely populated counties struggle to supply a sheriff to each school. As I’m writing this, Hernando County is running out of time to accomplish this feat and schools there could soon be shut down over their failure. One such school, Gulf Coast Academy, has maintained a rotation of off-duty deputies to protect the campus in hopes that the legislature would ease the burden of having a single designated officer. Gualtieri’s Pinellas County has a whopping 76 elementary schools alone and can’t fill all their deputy positions as it is. Allowing teachers to be guardians may ease the burden of the sheriff’s office and of the school districts as it opens windows for more potential safety officers. While Gualtieri could not vote on any recommendation put on the table, he convinced the commission to pass it with only one dissenting vote.

The media was quick to report on Gualtieri’s push with the phrase “arming teachers” which was somewhat misleading. The change in the guardian program does so much arm teachers as it allows them to be armed under strict conditions. The idea of arming teachers has become a subject of ridicule on the left since President Donald Trump suggested it shortly after the Parkland shooting. However, while Gualtieri’s recommendation is certainly a right wing concept – the NRA proposed something nearly identical to the guardian program shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre – it is not the same vague cry to let trained teachers carry that we have heard from the President and others on the right.

In fact, that may be the weakest part about the policy. Many school districts are struggling to find enough employees willing to be guardians for the program to make any difference as it is. While allowing teachers to join the program opens up new employees for the districts to reach out to, it’s unclear how many teachers would actually want to be a part. If the majority of them don’t, this political scuffle over “arming teachers” will have little impact regardless of the result.

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