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Florida Senate President Joe Negron said Thursday that he supports arming school teachers, endorsing a controversial proposal that has been severely criticized by educators, law enforcement and even U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House.
“The notion that my kids are going to school with teachers that are armed with a weapon is not something that, quite frankly, I’m comfortable with,” Rubio said Wednesday during a prime-time nationally televised CNN town hall meeting.
Yet Negron’s endorsement of the idea indicates that the much-anticipated package of gun-related bills scheduled to be unveiled Friday will encounter strong political crosswinds, complicating the Florida Legislature’s response to last week’s shooting at a Broward County high school that left 17 people dead.
“Not on my watch will we ever support the idea of arming teachers with guns in our classrooms,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho on Twitter. “They are armed with inspiration, they instruct, they lead, and they have a right to do it safely without being the ones tasked with guaranteeing it for everyone else.”
Negron asserts that there will be training for the teachers. It’s likely to be based on a program created by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who allows teachers who want to be armed to go through specialized training.
They would then be able to carry a concealed gun on K-12 campuses, and only top administrators would know who they are.
“The concept of having teachers who are trained and have appropriate credentials being able to be armed to protect students, I would support that,” said Negron.
President Donald Trump also strongly endorses arming specially trained teachers and paying bonuses to those who participate.
Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, advocated the proposal (SB 1236) Tuesday, suggesting in a radio interview that more guns on campus would make schools safer. His arguments were similar to those an Alabama lawmaker made the same day while proposing near identical legislation.
“I believe that properly trained individuals can stop terrorists and assailants from walking into a school and wreaking havoc for five to seven minutes before law enforcement gets there,” Steube said. “Absolutely.”
The debate breaches statehouse walls, with teachers — and the public — divided on the issue. A poll released this week by ABC News/Washington Post says 42 percent of Americans believe teachers with guns could have prevented the Florida shooting.
Teachers and gun control advocates see a needless risk, from a gun falling into the hands of a student to getting shot by police who mistake a teacher with a gun for a bad guy.
“Just think of how many things that could go wrong with that,” said Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
In truth, the idea of arming teachers is a fledgling one based more on theory than evidence. So few schools in America allow teachers to carry guns that there are no examples of them deterring or stopping shooters.
On the other hand, observers can only point to one example of an armed teacher creating a danger to others, when a Utah middle school teacher mishandled a handgun and fired into a toilet in 2014. (A professor in Idaho accidentally shot himself in the foot that same year, but he was on a college campus.)
If legislators approve it, Florida would become the ninth state to allow some people to carry concealed weapons on school grounds, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Across the country, more than 1,300 teachers in 200 school districts across 12 states have undergone training to be armed, according to Jim Irvine, the president of the Buckeye Firearms Foundation, a nonprofit that has become a pioneer in such training.
After the Sandy Hook massacre, which left 20 kids and six teachers dead, he said he pitched offering training for free to teachers in Ohio.
“We were mocked,” Irvine said. “People said, ‘Teachers don’t want to carry guns. You think teachers want to sign up for your class?’ In a couple weeks, we had a thousand people apply to be trained.”
One of those people was Jeff Staggs, the superintendent of the Newcomerstown schools, a small, 1,100-student district in rural Ohio.
He said that after parents brought the idea to his school board, he and other staffers and teachers went through Irvine’s training. He would not say how many people now carry concealed weapons in the district’s four buildings, citing security concerns.
He said the teachers in the program undergo extra scrutiny year-round. They’re drug-tested multiple times a year, and he said that if administrators have concerns about them, the teachers are expected to answer “any questions of any type” about their personal or private lives.
“Your life’s an open book,” Staggs said.
Judd’s program, known as the “Sentinel Program,” goes further than even Irvine’s three-day training: extensive background checks, 132 hours of training and quarterly recertification. He touts that the people who go through the program are deputized, but they’re allowed to use their weapons only to confront an active shooter.
The only school that has taken him up on the program is Southeastern University, a private liberal arts college in Lakeland.
But about 30 percent of the school’s security budget — a few hundred thousand dollars — goes to retraining the nine staffers and teachers at the sheriff’s office each year.
Florida teachers are adamantly opposed to the idea, according to Luke Flynt, secretary-treasurer of the Florida Education Association.
“They do not want to be armed with guns, no,” he said. “They want to be armed with the tools to do their jobs.”
This report includes information from Times/Herald Tallahassee staff writers Emily L. Mahoney and Steve Bousquet and Times staff writers Colleen Wright, Marlene Sokol and Megan Reeves, and from Associated Press. Lawrence Mower: firstname.lastname@example.org, @lmower3. Jeffrey S. Solochek: email@example.com, @jeffsolochek.