Florida commission approves recommendation to arm school teachers

by Bamidele Ogunberu Posted on January 4th, 2019

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA: The commission investigating a shooting massacre at a Florida high school unanimously approved its initial findings and recommendations Wednesday, including a controversial proposal that teachers who volunteer and undergo training be allowed to carry guns.

The 15-member Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s 446-page report details what members believe happened before, during and after the Feb. 14 attack that left 17 dead. The commission includes law enforcement, education and mental health professionals from around the state, a legislator and the fathers of two slain students.

Among the panel’s chief findings and recommendations:

  • State law should be changed to allow teachers who pass an intense training program and background check to carry concealed weapons on campus. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the panel’s chairman, argued last month for the change, saying teachers are often the ones who have the best chance to stop a school shooting quickly.
  • Deputy Scot Peterson, the long-time school resource officer assigned to Stoneman Douglas, “was derelict in his duty” by not entering the freshman building and confronting Cruz. (Video shows Peterson drawing his gun and taking cover outside the building. He retired shortly after the shooting and has denied wrongdoing.) The report also criticizes other deputies who failed to enter the building during the shooting, but praises officers from the Coral Springs Police Department who quickly ran inside.
  • Neither Stoneman Douglas nor the Broward School District had clear procedures for locking down classrooms during a shooting, which led to a three-minute delay in classrooms being shut and “left students and staff vulnerable to being shot.”

The report, which was sent to Gov. Rick Scott, incoming governor Ron DeSantis and the Legislature, is also critical of the Broward County sheriff’s deputies who failed to confront suspect Nikolas Cruz, and of Sheriff Scott Israel, whose office did not at the time have a policy requiring them to rush the three-story freshman building where the shooting happened.

The report also details failures in the county school district’s security program that members believe allowed Cruz — a former student known to have serious emotional and behavioral problems — to enter campus while carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in a bag.

Even since the shooting, not all Florida school districts and campuses have been taking security seriously, the report says, noting that several districts have been slow to complete mandated reviews of their safety plans and procedures.

“Safety and security accountability is lacking in schools, and that accountability is paramount for effective change if we expect a different result in the future than what occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas,” the report says.

Under a law passed after the shooting, districts can elect to arm non-classroom employees such as principals, other administrators, custodians and librarians who undergo training. The only teachers allowed to arm themselves are current or former police officers, active military members or Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructors. Thirteen of the state’s 67 districts arm non-teaching employees, mostly in rural parts of the state.

The state teachers union and PTA oppose the proposal to arm teachers. They argue that adding more armed people will make campuses more dangerous and say teachers should not also be acting as armed guards.

EARLIER: School massacre panel recommends arming teachers

The panel investigating the Florida high school massacre recommended Wednesday that teachers who volunteer and undergo extensive background checks and training be allowed to carry concealed guns on campus to stop future shootings.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission voted 13-1 to recommend the Legislature allow the arming of teachers, saying it’s not enough to have one or two police officers or armed guards on campus.

Florida law adopted after the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead allows districts to arm non-teaching staff members such as principals, librarians and custodians — 13 of the 67 districts do, mostly in rural parts of the state.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission’s chairman, pushed the measure at the Tallahassee meeting. He said most deaths in school shootings happen within the first few minutes, before officers on and off campus can respond.

He said suspect Nikolas Cruz stopped to reload his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle five times, all of which would have been opportunities for an armed teacher to shoot him.

“We have to give people a fighting chance, we have to give them an opportunity to protect themselves,” Gualtieri said. He said there aren’t enough officers or money to hire one for every school, but even then officers need backup. “One good guy with a gun on campus is not enough.”

The state teachers union and PTA have previously expressed opposition, saying teachers are hired to educate, not be police officers.

Commissioner Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex died in the massacre, cast the lone vote against the motion. He said the state should focus on hiring more police officers for campuses and allowing non-teaching staff to carry guns.

“We do need more good guys with a gun on campus — nobody understands that and wishes we had more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas than myself,” Schachter said. But arming teachers “creates a host of problems.” The father and wife of other victims, who are not on the commission, also spoke against arming teachers.

After the shooting, Florida law was changed to allow school districts to train and arm employees other than teachers except those who are former or current police officers, current members of the military or Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructors.

Currently, teachers in 28 states can carry firearms, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center, a conservative non-profit organization. District approval is required in most states and restrictions and training requirements vary.

The 15-member commission, which has been meeting periodically since April, will present a report to Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature by Jan. 1.

The commission includes law enforcement, education and mental health professionals, a legislator and the fathers of two slain students.

Also Wednesday, a judge rejected former Stoneman Douglas campus deputy Scot Peterson’s contention that he had no obligation to confront Cruz.

Refusing to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the parent of a victim, Broward Circuit Judge Patti Englander Henning found after a hearing that Peterson did have a duty to protect those inside the school. Video and other evidence shows Peterson, the only armed officer at the school, remained outside while shots rang out.

The negligence lawsuit was filed by Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed. Pollack said it made no sense for Peterson’s attorneys to argue that a sworn law enforcement officer with a badge and a gun had no requirement to go inside.

“Then what is he doing there?” Pollack said after the ruling. “He had a duty. I’m not going to let this go. My daughter, her death is not going to be in vain.”

Peterson attorney Michael Piper said he understands that people might be offended or outraged at his client’s defence, but he argued that as a matter of law, the deputy had no duty to confront the shooter. Peterson did not attend the hearing.

“There is no legal duty that can be found,” Piper said. “At its very worst, Scot Peterson is accused of being a coward. That does not equate to bad faith.”

The commission voted Wednesday to condemn Peterson’s actions, calling him “derelict” in his duties.

Cruz, a 20-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student, has pleaded not guilty, but his lawyers have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Image: In this Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018 file photo, Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz sits in the courtroom for issues dealing with procedural motions at the Broward Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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Bamidele Ogunberu

Bamidele Ogunberu

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