Senate removes ‘vast majority’ of teachers from plan to arm school personnel

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In a dramatic move designed to appease Gov. Rick Scott and other critics, the Florida Senate adopted a last-minute amendment to its school safety bill Monday that will take some teachers out of an optional program to allow school personnel to carry firearms in schools.

Under the amendment, proposed by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, classroom teachers would not be armed if a school district decides to participate in the so-called “school marshal” program established in response to the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. However, other school personnel, including support staff who provide some instructional work, current or former servicemen or JROTC instructors, would be able to carry firearms.

“The goal is to make sure that those instructional personnel that are in the classroom cannot participate in the program,” Garcia said. “This is an opt-in program … It’s dependent on the school district and the sheriff to determine if it participates in the program.”

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the bill, said he supported the measure, adding that it “would eliminate the vast majority of that school personnel from participating in that program.” It was approved on a voice vote.

Parkland students and their families who came to Tallahassee repeatedly argued against arming teachers. Scott has repeated his opposition to arming teachers and the issue is firmly opposed by most of the 28 members of the Legislative Black Caucus. A statewide Quinnipiac University poll conducted last week said 56 percent of voters oppose giving teachers firearms and 40 percent support it.

The poll also showed that a majority of Floridians also support a statewide assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity magazines but, faced with the difficult task of defining such a ban in the face of fierce opposition by the gun lobby, Florida legislators rejected those ideas and instead chose to raise the age limits and expand the waiting period.

The Senate began debate on the bill, SB 7026, after spending nearly eight hours on Saturday in a rare weekend floor session, rejecting all but one of dozens of Democratic amendments aimed at revising the proposal developed by the conservative Republicans in the Senate. The proposal would inject $400 million into mental health and school safety programs, raise the age on the purchase of all guns in Florida, ban the purchase and possession of bump stocks and expand the three-day waiting period on handguns to include all rifles and shotguns.

The bill, if approved, will next move to the House, where leaders there hope to approve it in time for it to reach the governor’s desk before the session ends on March 9.

In a series of meetings with senators early Monday, Scott told them he has not budged off his opposition to arming teachers but was also not threatening to veto the bill.

“He’s in the same place,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, the Senate Democratic leader from Miami Gardens. The governor seemed open taking teachers out, and other alternatives. “Out of respect for the process, he’s going to let us legislate and see what comes out. He’s not going to hold the specter of a veto over our heads.”

Despite the amendment, several Democrats continued to oppose bringing more guns onto school campuses, regardless of who has them.

“I cannot support this amendment this is part of this same theme of taking safe zones and putting guns in them,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. “This will be messaged as you are pulling guns out of the classroom but there are all kinds of teachers who have interactions with students who just aren’t assigned to classrooms.”

He suggested that counselors, career specialists and school psychologists and many others “all could still be carrying a weapon.”

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said that because schools are so cash-strapped, many will be forced to ask job applicants to “pull double duty” and sign up to become trained to carry a weapon in order to get a job in the district.

Garcia’s amendment also named the program to create school marshals after former Marjory Stoneman Douglas junior varsity football coach Aaron Feis, who was among the 17 victims of the Feb. 14 shooting.

Feis “used his body to shield students and in doing so lost his own,” Galvano said.

Feis is a former Douglas High School football player and worked at the school for eight years before he was killed. He is survived by his wife, Melissa, and his daughter Arial, and they support having the program named after him, Galvano said.

“There were so many heroes that day,” Galvano said. “He was not the only one, but he stood out in his actions in what he did.”

After the amendment was approved, Garcia said he would support the bill that he previously opposed. He called it “transformative” because of the amount of money dedicated to mental health services that includes $18.3 million for mobile crisis teams working with the Department of Children and Families and the schools; $500,000 for mental health first aid training; and $69 million for mental health assistance to school districts.

“What we’re doing here is something we should have done 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he said, noting that a common denominator in gun violence is either the lack of diagnosis or treatment for mental health.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, commended the mental health funding as well but said he could not support it.

“I have long been against bringing more guns to a gun fight,” he said.

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