Parkland commission pushes expansion of program to arm school staffers

Parkland commission pushes expansion of program to arm school staffers

Commissioners weighed the idea of sending guardians to train elsewhere in cases where a sheriff declines to participate in the program. | Jason Connolly/AFP/Gety Images

TALLAHASSEE — County sheriffs shouldn’t stand in the way of school boards that want to arm school staffers, including teachers, the commission investigating the Parkland shooting said on Thursday.

Commissioners, meeting in Tallahassee as they work to wrap a report due to state lawmakers by Jan. 1, unanimously approved a recommendation that the Legislature amend a rule requiring sheriffs to sign off when school districts want to participate in the Guardian Program. The program allows some school employees to carry weapons after receiving training from the county sheriff.

The recommendation comes a day after the panel decided it would urge lawmakers to expand the program to include teachers, something lawmakers explicitly prohibited when they created the program in the wake of the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. President Donald Trump was among those to support an effort to give guns to teachers.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, commission chairman, was the first to push both recommendations to expand the Guardian Program.

"We have to come up with a way to allow these districts … to get around the sheriff in those places where the sheriff won’t do it," Gualtieri said.

The commission’s recommendations don’t ensure these policies will be adopted by the Legislature. But its proposals are expected to be weighed heavily as lawmakers craft school safety and security legislation in 2019.

The suggestions to broaden the Guardian Program are meant to combat a shortage of law enforcement officers around the state, as well as the high cost of using those officers to protect schools. Currently, 25 of 67 school districts in Florida use some form of the program, according to state officials.

Some districts, commissioners said, want to use guardians but have been blocked by uncooperative sheriffs. In certain instances, sheriffs are declining to establish Guardian programs over insurance issues, commissioners said Thursday. No solution regarding possible insurance problems was ironed out during the discussion.

Commissioners weighed the idea of sending guardians to train elsewhere in cases where a sheriff declines to participate in the program. But commissioners agreed school security should be a local issue, and training should be coordinated by local officials.

Aside from clearing teachers to carry guns and giving school boards more authority, the commission could also suggest putting Guardians on every campus to back up the single guard called for by state law.

Florida schools could be primed for an influx of Guardians on campuses next year as districts could work to curb security costs.

Citrus County, for example, is helping its school district pay for staffing a school resource officer on campuses this year, said Douglas Dodd, a commissioner and Citrus County school board member. That money won’t be available forever, especially if the districts wants to add more guards, he said.

The Citrus school board wants guardians, Dodd said, but the sheriff has prevented the program from being implemented.

“We as school board members want to protect our schools and students,” Dodd said. “We want to have that option.”

Lawmakers created the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program this spring in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a direct response to the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting. Feis was a football coach who died shielding students during the massacre.

More than $67 million was set aside this year to train Guardians and pay them each a one-time $500 stipend. More than $58 million of that funding remains in Tallahassee after legislators decided to keep the money for the Guardian program instead of releasing it for other security needs.

The debate over arming instructional school personnel — opposed by many Democrats, particularly African-American lawmakers — nearly tanked the landmark public safety act, FL SB7026 (18R), earlier this year.

The legislation eventually passed with a much smaller Guardian Program that expressly forbids educators from receiving the designation, a rebuke of the president’s assertion that, “If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, that could very well end the attack very quickly.”

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