Post-Parkland, Manatee School Board split on whether to let teachers carry guns on campus

The School Board of Manatee County is divided on the issue of arming teachers, an aspect of quickly moving legislation in Tallahassee.

Senate Bill 7030 and House Bill 7093 would expand a law created after the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland. Aside from Junior ROTC instructors, current service members and past or current law enforcement officers, most teachers are currently prohibited from carrying a firearm on campus.

If either were to pass, teachers could voluntarily join the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program — an armed position — if they pass a psychological evaluation, drug test, 144 hours of training and the requirements for a concealed carry permit.

At the request of board member James Golden, the school board will consider a resolution either for or against the legislation at Tuesday’s board meeting. He could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but he took a stance at the March 12 board meeting.

“I would move that Manatee County, as a school board, oppose the arming of classroom teachers,” Golden said at the time.

He is joined by board member Charlie Kennedy, who feels that teachers — many overburdened and underpaid — should worry about educating students, not handling firearms.

“Generally speaking, I’m against it, but I will give the legislature credit,” said Kennedy, a former teacher at Manatee High School. “At least as of right now, they are leaving it up to local school boards. That’s why I feel this resolution is important, to kind of signal to the community that, if it does come down, this is how the school board feels about it.”

Expanding the guardian program and allowing teachers to carry a firearm was an official recommendation of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Legislators formed the 16-member group to investigate the Parkland shooting and the security needs of statewide campuses.

Manatee School Board member Scott Hopes has been a vocal proponent of the legislation. He pointed to the safety committee’s chairman, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who opposed the arming of teachers before his service on the committee, which led to his newfound support.

“It creates at least the opportunity for school boards to work with local law enforcement and safety experts to determine what type of coverage is needed on a particular campus to protect life and limb,” Hopes said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis stressed the program’s voluntary nature in past media interviews. His support deviates from the stance held by former Gov. Rick Scott, who continually spoke against the arming of teachers.

SB 7030 cleared two committees with unanimous approval by Republicans and clear opposition from Democrats, and it faces a review by the Appropriations Committee before it reaches the Senate floor.

About 150 high school activists traveled to the Capitol in protest of HB 7093 on Wednesday afternoon, but Republicans temporarily postponed the floor debate.

Hopes said it would be premature for the school board to limit its options, and that fellow board members should speak out in Tallahassee rather than passing a “meaningless” resolution against pending legislation. At a previous board meeting, he recommended the school board watch surveillance video from the Parkland shooting.

“Not one of us on that board is an expert in school security and school safety in the event of an active-shooter situation,” Hopes said on Wednesday.

Chairman Dave Miner and Vice-Chair Gina Messenger could not be reached for comment, and neither has taken a public stance thus far.

Other school boards have already opposed the arming of teachers. Hillsborough County unanimously passed a resolution in February, and Sarasota County board members voted 3-2 to pass a resolution on Tuesday.

The Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, also took a firm stance against the legislation.

“Our teachers and other school employees are ready to fiercely defend our students,” the union said in a past release. “But none of them should ever have to choose between shepherding students to safety or confronting an armed assailant where they are sure to draw fire toward the very students they are trying to protect.”

Manatee’s school board members will convene for their regular meeting at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday, and the discussion is their last agenda item.

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.