Students travel to Tallahassee with a message — don’t arm our teachers

Students gather at the Florida Capitol on Wednesday to protest bills that would allow teachers to be armed in their classrooms. (Skyler Swisher / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Students arrived by the busload to the Florida Capitol Wednesday to urge lawmakers to vote down a proposal that would allow teachers to carry guns on campus.

About 200 students lined the pathway into the House chamber and held the photos of people lost to gun violence.

Robert Schentrup, 19, displayed a picture of his sister, Carmen, who was one of the 17 people killed last year in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. She was one week away from her 17th birthday.

He said he thought about whether a teacher with a gun could have saved his sister’s life, but he concluded the unintended consequences outweigh the benefits.

“I had some teachers who had short tempers with students,” said Schentrup, a student at the University of Central Florida. “I worry about firearms escalating situations, especially in inner-city communities.”

Armed teachers could cause confusion for police officers responding to a mass shooting, and more guns in schools could increase rather than decrease the chances of violence, Schentrup said.

Meanwhile in South Florida, students walked out of Stoneman Douglas Wednesday morning to call for more mental health services in schools. Two student survivors of the Feb. 14, 2018, school shooting killed themselves in a one-week span last month.

The bill to allow the arming of teachers was scheduled to be debated Wednesday afternoon in the Florida House, but it was postponed. The measure would allow teachers to voluntarily carry guns if they complete training and local school boards agree.

The demonstrations played no role in the decision to delay debate on the bill, said Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Jose Oliva.

“The presence of the students unequivocally I can say had nothing to do with the postponement,” he said.

A disagreement between the House and the Senate on how to align the policy with the budget was the reason, Piccolo said. The speaker is confident those issues will be resolved, he said.

Organizers said students traveled to Tallahassee from Orlando, Gainesville and Tampa.

House Democrats filed numerous amendments seeking to remove teachers from the list of school employees who could be armed.

State Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said lawmakers should be discussing banning assault weapons — not putting guns into the hands of teachers.

“I hope the bill gets temporarily delayed for the next 30 days until the end of session,” he said. “It’s bad policy, and it shouldn’t happen.”

Opponents to the legislation have created a website and launched ads criticizing the proposal. At a rally outside the Capitol, students chanted, “We’ll be back.”

Supporters, though, say allowing teachers to carry guns would make schools safer when most mass shootings are over in a matter of minutes.

The Parkland shooter spent fewer than four minutes gunning down students and staff.

“They were just sitting ducks — with no chance,” state Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said in a hearing last week.

The proposal would expand the state’s Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program created in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

Named for an assistant football coach killed in the massacre, the program allows non-instructional employees to carry guns if they undergo training and pass a psychological evaluation.

Last year, state lawmakers opted not to include most classroom teachers on the list of school employees authorized to carry weapons.

The state commission investigating the Parkland shooting recommended in December expanding the program to include teachers.

School boards would decide whether to participate in the guardian program. School systems also have the option of stationing a law enforcement officer at each school, a costlier option.

Twenty-five districts participate in the guardian program, including Broward County.

Educators would need to pass a psychological evaluation and complete at least 144 hours of firearms training to carry a gun on campus.

Molly Lavoie, 18, a student at Osceola County School for the Arts, held a sign that read, “mental health over guns.” Another student carried a sign that read, “If giving more people guns made us safer, America would be the safest country on Earth.”

“I don’t want to worry about one of my teachers having a gun,” Lavoie said. “It’s very scary that could be a reality for me.”

sswisher@sunsentinel.com, 561-243-6634 or @SkylerSwisher

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