Local activists oppose proposal to let teachers carry guns in classrooms

Protect Our Public Schools Manasota held a panel discussion on school safety Tuesday evening to highlight the group’s opposition to a pending legislative bill that would allow teachers to carry firearms.

“I am 100 percent against the arming of teachers in our schools,” said Curt Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council. His comment was followed by applause from an audience of about 40 people.

Former Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 7026 — the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act — last March, a response to the school massacre in Parkland. It created the guardian program and allowed armed civilians to patrol Florida schools after their successful completion of training by a local sheriff’s office.

Though some guardians have prior experience in law enforcement or the military, they aren’t required to hail from a certain background.

The current law prohibits teachers from becoming guardians. However, exceptions were made for instructors with the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, along with current service members and past or current law enforcement officers.

Senate Bill 7030 would remove the prohibition against classroom teachers serving as school guardians, allowing instructors to voluntarily enroll in the guardian program. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently backed the idea in statements to area media.

On Tuesday, a panel of five activists met at Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center, in Sarasota, to discuss their views on school safety. POPS Manasota sponsored the forum, alongside the Sarasota Brady Campaign to prevent Gun Violence and the Sarasota Peace, Education and Action Center.

Hailey Landry, a junior at Riverview High School, questioned the potential arming of teachers. Could students, especially the youngest, access their teacher’s firearm?

Despite the required training, how would a teacher react in the event of a real shooting? And would he or she make a deadly mistake?

“Congress, don’t arm my schools with rifles,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “Arm us with books. Arm us with programs. Arm me with an education.”

Landry said a fire alarm was triggered at her school on Tuesday morning, causing a panic among students who feared the wost.

“One thing was on my mind the whole time: Parkland,” she said, fighting back tears.

She said thousands of student huddled in the courtyard “like fish in a barrel.” Some called their loved ones, while other grappled with the same dark thoughts, Landry said.

“The fire alarm was pulled at school, and we were more worried about a school shooting than an actual fire,” she said. “We were more prepared to take cover from a rain of bullets than evacuate from a fire. That is the real national emergency.”

She listed several shootings from past years: the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn.; the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C.; the San Bernardino shooting in California; the concert shooting in Las Vegas; and the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

The shooting in Parkland, she said, was the final straw for many. Landry said her school is now outfitted with “giant fences” and hall monitors, along with an increased police presence and bullet-resistant glass in the front office.

But guns, active shooter drills, random searches and campus renovations are not the solution, according to Landry. She underscored a lack of communication or follow-up between students who recognize potential risks and the people tasked with investigating the red flags.

She also supported a ban on assault-style weapons, another focus of Tuesday’s discussion.

“I can’t help but feel like my school is becoming less of an educational institution and more of a prison,” she said.

Carol Rescigno, president of the Sarasota Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said armed teachers would not deter potential shooters, who value fame over life.

“They don’t care if there’s a gun in there or not when they go in,” she said. “They go in anyway because they’re going down in a blaze of glory.”

Other panelists focused on gun violence and prevention efforts in the community at large.

Lynn Hautamaki is a retired teacher and a leader within Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She said her organization is pushing for background checks in every gun purchase, including private sales.

“We know that gun violence is not just a school violence issue,” Hautamaki said. “It is violence on our city streets. It’s really tough on children that live in the cities, and it’s not safe for them to even walk to their schools.”

But regardless of their various grievances or proposed solutions, every panelist was firm in their stance against arming teachers.

Their opposition is shared by the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

And as the panel convened on Tuesday evening, the Hillsborough County School Board voted unanimously to approve a resolution against SB 7030 and “all proposals to arm the teachers” in Hillsborough.

“Whereas, the safety of students, teachers and staff is of paramount importance to the Board; and whereas, Senate Bill 7030 will not make students, teachers and staff safer,” the resolution states.

SB 7030 — School Safety and Security — faces intense opposition, but it’s driven by equally passionate supporters. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, created after the shooting in Parkland, inspired much of the pending legislation.

The committee filed its initial report with the governor, the speaker for the House of Representatives and the Senate president on Jan. 2.

“Further, the Florida legislature should expand the Guardian Program to allow teachers who volunteer — in addition to those now authorized — who are properly selected, thoroughly screened and extensively trained to carry concealed firearms on campuses for self-protection, and the protection of other staff and students in response to an active assailant incident,” the report states.

The Senate Committee on Education, led by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, voted 5-3 to back the legislation on Feb. 12, bringing it closer to a full vote in the upcoming legislative session. The committee’s three Democrats opposed the bill.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, issued a statement on the same day.

“We made a commitment to the students and families of Parkland that we would do everything in our power to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again,” he said.

“For me, an important part of that commitment was taking the recommendations of the MSDHS Safety Commission Seriously, so I am very pleased this critical school safety legislation gets to the heart of the Commission recommendations,” he continued.

On Tuesday, SB 7030 was referred to the Committee on Infrastructure and Security and the Committee on Appropriations.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.