Florida House debates amendments to school safety bill

A proposal to arm some teachers and school employees proved particularly contentious Tuesday as Florida representatives debated amendments to a school safety bill.

House members spent nearly three hours asking questions about the legislation, which would put some restrictions on rifle sales, provide new mental health programs from schools and improve communication between school districts, law enforcement and state agencies.

The Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County left 17 dead. Students' anger at the availability of guns, access to weapons by the mentally ill and school safety spurred lawmakers to act.

The House spent more than five hours considering more than three-dozen Democratic filed amendments, all of which failed. The first would have stripped language from the bill that would create a program to arm some teachers and school employees who have undergone law enforcement training. Several Democrats said they wouldn't vote for the bill if it included the so-called guardian program, which would put more guns in schools.

The amendment to strip out guardian language failed on 42-71 vote after more than an hour of a debate.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said polls show there's little support for arming teachers, yet overwhelming support for an assault rifle ban.

"So what do we have before us today? A proposal that arms teachers and does not ban military-style assault weapons," Smith said. "This is why people are so fed up with politics."

Several black lawmakers expressed concern that African-American students would be more likely to be accidentally shot by a school employee.

"This is a dangerous bill for people of color, particularly, I believe, young black and brown boys, young black and brown girls, black and brown teachers, males and females. I think there will be some unintended consequences that are deadly and dangerous," Democratic Rep. Cynthia Stafford said.

Republican Rep. Elizabeth Porter lashed back at that idea.

"I've heard that all of a sudden the folks that have been proponents of teachers all these years are saying that teachers are now incompetent ... they're racist, they're bigoted, they're going to target black boys and brown boys. I don't think that's our teachers at all," Porter said.

Porter also criticized her colleagues who've said that lawmakers should listen to the Stoneman Douglas students who took buses to Tallahassee and lobbied for gun safety legislation.

"We've been told that we need to listen to the children and do what the children ask. Are there any children on this floor? Are there any children making laws? Do we allow the children to tell us that we should pass a law that says no homework?" Porter said. "No. The adults make the laws."

Families of the 17 people who were killed called on the state's Legislature to pass a bill they believe will improve school security. The Senate narrowly passed the bill Monday. The House will vote on it Wednesday. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Friday.

Local sheriffs are warning that Florida legislators are not setting aside enough money to ensure every school will have its own resource officer.

The Florida Sheriffs Association sent a letter Tuesday to Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders that said setting aside enough money to pay for enough school resource officers is their "top priority."

Right now the Republican-controlled Legislature has crafted a bill that would set aside about $162 million to pay for school resource officers, a boost of $97 million over current amounts. Their bill includes $67 million to be used by sheriffs to set up a program to train and arm school employees. Scott last month recommended that legislators spend $250 million.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that it costs about $100,000 on average to hire and equip a law-enforcement officer, and Florida has about 3,800 schools.

"The reality is if we are going to put uniform law enforcement officer on every campus, it's got to be paid for," Gualtieri said. "I think there is clearly a citizen desire and expectation to do that. You can't meet that desire and expectation without the money to do it."

Meanwhile, prosecutors and lawyers for the victims are going to court to handle the aftermath of the Valentine's Day massacre.

Grand jurors met Tuesday and heard evidence against Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old former student who authorities say killed 17 people and injured more than a dozen others when he fired an AR-15 assault-style rifle inside the school.

And grievously injured student Anthony Borges, 15, and his family filed a letter of intent to sue the Broward County Sheriff's Office, the school resource officer, the school system and Marjory Stoneman Douglas' principal to help recover the costs of his recuperation.

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