TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Legislature took the first steps to expand a law that now allows some teachers to carry guns in schools when the Senate Education Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would make all teachers eligible for the program.
The committee approved the bill on a 5-3 vote, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed. Though the bill proposes several changes to a school safety law passed last year after a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, debate focused on arming teachers.
"I hope that it is a very, very, very rare threat. But when it is real, I want someone there to protect my eight grandchildren and their generation," said Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley. "If you're charged with their safety, we should not ask you to charge in with a water pistol and stand there and be a victim with no way to defend yourself."
Democrats opposed the provision, saying arming more teachers will only create more danger.
"I don't want to take a program that hasn't been proven, expand it and possibly make things more dangerous," said Democratic Sen. Lori Berman. "More access to weapons on campus leads to a higher risk as opposed to a lower risk."
The overall bill incorporates several recommendations from a commission set up to investigate the Parkland shooting. Currently, school districts can choose to allow teachers who have another role at a school, such as a sports coach, to carry arms under a voluntary program. Non-teaching staff can also participate.
Teachers and employees have to undergo training, background checks and a psychological evaluation. Currently, 25 of Florida's 67 school districts have opted worked with local sheriffs to create guardian programs.
Republican Sen. Manny Diaz, who chairs the Education Committee, said expanding the program to make all teachers eligible doesn't have a significant effect on what's already in place, saying it remains a voluntary program and districts don't have to participate.
"It simply just removes the piece that says you have to have additional duties," Diaz said. "Currently a teacher who teaches ... six periods of mathematics and has no other duties, to become eligible as a guardian now, under statute, all they have to do is say they're going to be a hall monitor for one period, or sponsor a club."
The bill would also speed up the process for evaluating children showing signs of emotional or behavioral problems, require schools to quickly report school safety incidents and expand a mobile suspicious activity reporting program by including the tool on all computers issued to students. The reporting system would also have to be advertised on all school websites, in newsletters and on school campuses.