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FL Senate OK's 'Guardian' Expansion, Likely Ensuring Adoption of Armed Teacher Proposal

TALLAHASSEE – Florida is going to allow vetted volunteer teachers with concealed weapons licenses to carry firearms in classrooms if local school boards opt into a year-old “guardian” program and local law enforcement agencies provide training, certification and supervision.

The expansion of the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program to include classroom teachers, established by the Legislature in the wake of last year’s Valentine’s Day Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, is a virtual certainty after the Florida Senate Tuesday approved Senate Bill 7030 in a 22-17 mostly partisan vote.

A companion bill, House Bill 7093, has been awaiting final approval on the House floor since early April.

With Republicans holding a 73-47 advantage in the lower chamber, HB 7093 is expected to pass convincingly and Gov. Ron DeSantis is likely to sign into law whatever iteration of SB 7030 and HB 7093 lands on his desk.

A “60-40” prediction last week by Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., D-Lauderhill, that negotiations between Senate Republicans and Democrats would produce a compromise that removes the guardian expansion to classroom did not materialize Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Classroom teachers were excluded from the guardian program as a concession to Senate Democrats and reticent Republicans during the 2018 legislative session when the Legislature adopted SB 7026, the $400 million Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act, which was hastily assembled in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

SB 7026 earmarked $67 million for the guardian program but, according to a 458-page January report by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Commission – created to ascertain how to best implement the Stoneman Douglas Act – only 25 school districts had opted to go with it, using only $9.7 million to train 688 guardians.

Many districts would adopt the program if local law enforcement agencies provided the training, but under SB 7026, it was optional for sheriffs to do so. Many didn’t, citing liability concerns.

The commission suggested requiring sheriffs to provide training at a school board’s request and that volunteers undergo 144 hours of training, rigorous background checks and physiological analysis to be vetted participants – and that teachers with concealed weapons permits be allowed to volunteer.

SB 7030 – and HB 7093 – incorporates the commission’s findings and recommendations “in entirety,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, called the guardian expansion “liberating” for teachers and school boards.

“We’re used to taking responsibility for ourselves. We’re just asking to do the training,” Baxley said.

After detailing the events that transpired during the Parkland shooting, which left 17 dead, Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said allowing vetted, trained volunteer teachers serve as the last line of defense is simply due diligence.

“I wish we had a law enforcement officer on every floor of every school. We do not and we cannot,” Hooper said. “I must err on the side of saving a kid.”

Thurston said SB 7030 is a good bill that would otherwise enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support with the exception of expanding the guardian program to classroom teachers.

The bill “does a lot to ensure children are safe in schools,” he said, but arming teachers is the exact opposite of what students – including survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting – and teachers themselves asked of lawmakers.

“These teachers say they don’t want that,” Thurston said.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a career school district superintendent, said the bill adds yet another burden on teachers who are continuously being forced into collateral duties that have nothing to do with being educators.

“In the last 40 years,” he said, “teachers have had to take on responsibilities that the communities can’t address.”

Senate President Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, issued a statement after the vote, calling SB 7030 “critical school safety legislation.”

“This legislation continues our efforts to proactively enhance coordination between education, law enforcement, and community mental health resources to ensure at-risk students receive the help they need before a tragedy occurs,” he said.

With the commission set to continue its review of school safety policies, Galvano said “my colleagues and I will continue to monitor the investigation and recommendations as part of our ongoing effort to enhance school safety and reduce the possibility that a tragedy like this will ever happen again.”

This piece appeared in the Watchdog.org and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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