Senate scales back armed-teacher plan; passes school security bill

  • Kenya Woodard
  • Post Capital Correspondent
8:37 p.m Monday, March 5, 2018 Politics
A gun control sign sits down the street from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as students and their parents arrived Wednesday morning, February 28, 2018. (Lannis Waters /The Palm Beach Post)

Florida senators narrowly gave their approval Monday to a sweeping school safety bill that would pour millions of dollars into hardening schools and increasing mental health services but would exclude most teachers from participating in a controversial “school marshal program” meant to allow school employees to carry concealed weapons on campus.

Dubbed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, the bill (SB 7026) doles out more than $400 million in funding for various initiatives, including more than $97 million for safe schools programming, more than $98 million hardening the physical security of school buildings, and $69 million to fund a mental health assistance programming.

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The bill also includes $67 million for a “school marshal program” – named the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, one of the 17 victims who died in the Feb. 14 mass shooting – that would allow school employees to carry concealed weapons on campuses after completing 132 hours of training under the auspices of a sheriff’s department.

But as the result of an amendment offered Monday by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, the only teachers who could take the sheriff’s office training and qualify to carry a firearm on campus would be teachers in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, a current member of U.S. Reserves or National Guard and or current or former law enforcement officer. Other school staff could also volunteer for the program but all other classroom teachers would be blocked from the program.

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The bill passed on a 20-18 vote, with six Republicans voting against and three Democrats voting in favor. It now goes to the House, which has a similar proposal, but the House proposal would require sheriffs to participate in the marshal program if school districts order it.

The Republicans voting against the bill were Sens. Greg Steube of Sarasota, Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Denise Grimsley of Sebring, George Gainer of Panama City and Dorothy Hukill of Port Orange. The Democrats voting for it were Kevin Rader of Delray Beach, Lauren Book of Plantation and Bill Montford of Tallahassee.

Rader said while the bill isn’t perfect, legislators must act because Stoneman Douglas survivors are “begging us to do something.”

“At the end, I believe we are moving the needle and that’s why I’m going to vote for it,” he said.

Book echoed Rader’s sentiments, saying the bill was “the first step in saying never again” and that legislators could return next session to do more.

However, Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, wasn’t as optimistic.

“The talk about this being the first step – members, I’m sorry but I believe this will be the first and last step,” he said.

The schools marshal program and the bill’s lack of an assault weapons ban have been a major source of tension about the bill for Douglas High survivors and parents and gun-control advocates. Those groups favored tighter gun restrictions including banning assault weapons like the AR-15, which authorities say former Douglas High student Nikolas Cruz, 19, used in the Valentine’s Day killings.

Stoneman Douglas survivors also had strongly opposed the marshal program, saying it puts more guns in schools – the opposite of what they want.

Although Garcia’s amendment was meant as a compromise, some Democrats rejected it, saying it still allows guns on campus.

“I cannot support the amendment that’s part of…taking a safe zone and putting more guns in them,” said Miami Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez.

Farmer agreed.

“It’s not just guns in schools – it’s guns in classrooms,” he said. “Don’t put guns in the actual classrooms.”

The amendment was approved on a voice vote.

I think the amendment was to clarify that we weren’t expecting front-line teachers to take on those duties” of carrying guns, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said in a press conference after the Senate adjourned for the day.

The vote on the bill came at the end of about five hours of emotional debate Monday, which followed eight hours of debate on the issue during a rare Saturday session of the Senate.

The bill also increases the legal minimum age to buy any firearm in Florida from 18 to 21, requires a three-day waiting period for all firearm purchases and bans the purchase of bump stocks.

It also would establish the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission to investigate the shooting and prior mass violence incidents and to make recommendations for improvements.

It also would require schools to have at least one school resource officer at each campus and designate a district school safety specialist to serve as the district’s primary point of public contact for public school safety functions. That person also would direct the school’s threat assessment team.

Bill author Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, acknowledged that legislators would not satisfy everyone with the bill but told senators they owed it to the Parkland community to get out of their “comfort zone” and support it.

“This bill will make a difference now,” he said. “When it becomes law, things will start changing.”