TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - More Florida classroom teachers could carry guns in school under a bill passed Wednesday by state lawmakers, the latest response to last year's mass shooting at a Parkland high school.
The Republican-led House voted 65-47 on Wednesday to send the bill to GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it. The measure expands an existing school "guardian" program to allow any teacher to volunteer to carry a weapon if their local school district approves.
"It allows the good guys to stop the bad. The bad guys will never know when the good guys are there to shoot back," said Republican Rep. Chuck Brannan of Lake City, a retired law enforcement officer. "The guardian is the last line of defense. He or she will be there when a police officer is not."
Teachers who want to carry guns in districts that choose to join the program would have to undergo police-style training, psychiatric evaluation and drug screening. Under a law passed last year immediately after the Parkland shooting, only teachers who also have another role, such as sports coach, are eligible to carry weapons on campus.
The bill comes after 17 people were killed by a rifle-toting shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018. Nikolas Cruz, 20, faces the death penalty if convicted of those slayings.
Yet new Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony, who was appointed by DeSantis after the suspension of former Sheriff Scott Israel in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, said in a letter Wednesday to the local school board and superintendent that he opposes arming teachers in schools.
"This program would place students, teachers, and first responders at risk, when our focus should be on keeping our children safe and making schools places where students feel they belong," Tony wrote. "Teachers enter that profession to educate children, not to serve as school security."
Most Democrats voted against the bill, contending that introducing more weapons into schools would place children at risk, raise the dangers of mistaken shootings and even lead to more violence against African American students because of inherent biases. Several mentioned an incident Tuesday in Pasco County along Florida's west coast in which a police officer assigned to a middle school had his gun discharge in a cafeteria. No one was hurt.
"We see accidents happen every day," said Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat. "This is not the answer. Don't put more guns in our schools."
The bill was strongly opposed by teachers unions, and school boards in some of Florida's most counties have voted against joining the guardian program, preferring instead to leave the security job to trained police officers. But the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan of Eustis, said it was the best opportunity to protect schoolchildren from future shooters - and noted it was purely voluntary for teachers to become armed guardians.
"If a teacher does not want to be a guardian, we don't require them to. This bill does not require districts to arm teachers," said Sullivan, chair of the House Education Committee.
The legislation also contains a number of other school safety measures, such as wider disclosure of certain student mental health records and mental screening of troubled students, greater reporting of school safety and student discipline incidents and a requirement that law enforcement officials be consulted about any threats.
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