TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A Florida House committee voted Thursday for a broad school safety bill that would expand an existing guardian program to allow classroom teachers to volunteer to carry weapons on campus if local school boards approve.
The Republican-led legislation adopted 11-5 along party lines by the House Education Committee builds on a law passed after last year's mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Teachers would not be required to carry guns, but those who volunteer would have to undergo 144 hours of firearms training, possess a valid concealed weapon permit and pass both a psychological evaluation and drug test.
Currently, teachers whose sole focus is classroom instruction are excluded from the program that as of January numbered about 726 armed volunteer guardians in 25 Florida counties, according to a committee staff analysis.
The main sponsor, Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan of Eustis, said the intent is not to force any teacher to carry a gun but allow those who volunteer and are qualified to improve safety in public schools.
"The more people that are there to defend students, to defend other teachers, the better," said Sullivan, who chairs the Education Committee. "If a teacher does not want to go through the program, I don't want them to go through the program."
The provision is opposed by major teacher unions and other groups who say educators should not take on the role of trained law enforcement personnel. Opponents also raised a number of risky scenarios, such as teachers losing a gun or having one stolen on campus, the possibility of a child or teacher being accidentally shot and potential deadly escalation of confrontations with students or fights.
"Teachers want to teach children and broaden children's minds," said Democratic Rep. Susan Valdes of Tampa. "If they wanted to be a cop, they would have gone to police academy and become a cop."
Still, the bill's supporters noted that the one trained and armed law enforcement officer at the Parkland school, former Broward Sheriff's Deputy Scot Peterson, did not enter the building while the shooter was killing students and staff with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle on Valentine's Day 2018.
"If this bill was in place before Parkland, how many less lives would have been lost?" said Rep. Amber Mariano, a Port Richey Republican.
The legislation also contains a number of other school safety measures, such as wider disclosure of certain student mental health records and mental screening of troubled students, greater reporting of school safety and student discipline incidents and a requirement that law enforcement officials be consulted about any threats.
The Senate has a similar bill moving through committees. Its next scheduled vote is Tuesday. Differences between the two measures would have to be ironed out before a final bill could be sent to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Nikolas Cruz, 20, is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the Parkland shooting. His lawyers have said he will plead guilty in return for a life prison sentence, but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Trial is tentatively set for early 2020.