TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida senators agreed a school safety bill has many good provisions, but were divided on one issue Thursday as they voted to send it to the chamber floor: expanding a program that allows teachers to carry guns.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 11-9 for a bill to revise a school safety law enacted last year after 17 people were fatally shot at a Parkland high school in February 2018. Repeatedly in the more than three hours of discussion, Democrats and Republicans praised portions of the bill, including provisions to require schools to report all violent incidents, an increased focus on properly assessing and responding to potentially threatening behavior and requiring schools to promote suspicious activity reporting tools.
"Overall, I think this is a really good bill," said Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former Leon County school superintendent. "The piece that I can't embrace is ... the idea that more guns on campus makes it safer. I can't get there at this point."
Montford said during his time as a school administrator, he saw tense situations where hundreds of students were gathered and about to become violent, adding, "Quite frankly, If I was in that position today, I would not want a teacher with a gun."
The sticking point for the committee's Democrats and one Miami Republican was expanding the so-called guardian program that allows teachers to carry guns. Right now, teachers are only eligible for the voluntary program if they serve in another role at school, such as an athletic coach or directing an extracurricular activity. School districts have to approve the program and teachers have to be trained by a sheriff's office and undergo psychiatric evaluation. The bill would make all teachers eligible for the program regardless of whether the serve a role outside the classroom.
Republican Manny Diaz is ushering the bill through the Senate and said its provisions are all based on recommendations from a commission formed to study the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He pointed out that schools aren't being forced to arm teachers.
"It comes down to one word, and that word is 'option.' We are not ... presenting a bill here today that forces any teacher to be armed. We are not forcing any district to implement an armed program," Diaz said.
While the 43-page bill touches on a number of issues, all the public testimony involved the provision to arm teachers.
"There's no proof - zero proof - that had any of those teachers been armed, it would have stopped the shooter," said Gay Valimont, leader of the Moms Demand Action Florida chapter. "So many more things can go wrong, than can go right."
But Republican Sen. Rob Bradley mentioned Aaron Feis and Chris Hixon, Parkland athletic coaches killed while trying to protect students during Nikolas Cruz' rampage, in arguing for the bill.
"It would be my greatest hope in life that we could live in a world where there were no guns in the classroom ... but Nikolas Cruz shattered that hope when he brought a gun into a classroom on February 14th and killed our precious children. And that's the reality of the world we live in today," Bradley said. "I only wish that Coach Feis or Coach Hixon were guardians ... and they had a gun and not a radio in their hand."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.