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Debate Over 'Guardian' Program Gets Emotional As Plan To Arm More Teachers Heads To Senate Floor

A sign bearing the names of the 17 people killed during the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (3/24/2018)
Lydell Rawls

Florida lawmakers are responding to a report on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland with a measure that addresses concerns raised in the 480-plus page report. Lawmakers say it’s "a good bill, but"—noting a divide over one portion that gives districts the option to allow classroom teachers to carry guns. The measure is now going before the full Senate amid controversy over the issue.

The measure is wide-ranging. It addresses mental health in schools, calls for stronger incident reporting and making more safety upgrades to facilities. When districts identify troubled students, they’re directed to refer those kids to services and  keep a file which would follow that student should they leave. All are issues raised by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission which was convened in the aftermath of the shooting that left 17 students dead.

In her defense of the bill, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, named each victim and said "it’s about every single child across this great state.”     

Book sat on the Commission, and says the bill as a whole will keep kids safe. She points to part of the measure requiring districts to do threat assessments and act on them, which wasn’t the case with the gunman.

“No one knew what way or how it should be done," Book said. "That threat assessment that was incomplete, not followed up on, was in a folder in a principal’s office never to be followed up on. That’s after a student said he was going to drink gasoline and hurt other people.”  

The gunman ended up wounding another 17 people and is facing 1st degree murder charges. 

"I firmly believe our kids' lives should be protected by more than just hope."

“I really hope that I am wrong. I hope we’re all wrong and that ultimately, there will be more good that comes from this than bad," said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. "But I firmly believe our kids lives should be protected by more than just hope. And for that reason I can’t vote for this bill today.”  

Flores says post-Parkland, there are now more guns and schools and says cannot get behind the measure. At issue is the part of the plan that allows school districts to decide whether to arm classroom teachers. Right now, those who don’t just work in the classroom can carry guns at the discretion of the district. A quarter of those in the state have implemented the program. Most have not, and many teachers, like Barbara Alver, don’t want guns in classrooms.

I am also torn," she testified Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Comittee, "because if I was armed—I am a gun owner—I would not take like to take it to scool because I think that would not be the place to have a gun.”  

She says teachers who do carry face a difficult choice.

“Do I leave my 20 something students…afraid and alone in the classroom to go out and pursue a gunman? Or do I stay with my students to protect them?  I feel if I were a guardian and did either one of those situations, I would be wrong.”

Most mass shootings happen in a span of minutes, not hours, and by the time law enforcement can respond, the damage is already done. Bill sponsor, Sen. Manny Diaz, says what happens when the first, second and even third lines of defense fail?

“I can assure you that after looking at the pictures [of the shooting] I firmly ask this committee to continue with the bill and make sure all the schools have the option so that, if all else fails, someone can save the lives of these kids.”  

But should teachers be that line? The full Senate will soon take up that debate.