Legislative leaders on Friday said they would support allowing unused funds earmarked for a controversial school “guardian” program to be used for school resource officers.
Senate President Joe Negron told The News Service of Florida he believed the Joint Legislative Budget Commission could reappropriate leftover funds but said it’s too soon to say when that might happen.
Many school superintendents and school boards have said they will not implement the guardian program, which would allow school employees, including some teachers, to bring guns to school if they are specially trained and deputized by sheriffs.
In Flagler County, Superintendent Jim Tager and the school board said they would not support arming anyone who is not, in essence, as trained as school deputies must be to carry a weapon, and ruled out arming school employees. Sheriff Rick Staly left the door open for possibly arming reserve or retired deputies, but only on the “perimeter”: of schools, not in schools proper, and only if money were available. The money the Legislature set aside offers only a one-time, $500 stipend for those willing tpo be armed in schools, though it covers training expenses.
The guardian program was part of a $400 million package legislators crafted in response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 people dead.
The Legislature set aside $67 million for the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program,” named after an assistant football coach who died after using his body to shield students from a hail of bullets from the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle used by Nikolas Cruz in the slaying of 14 students and three faculty members.
The money for the program was included in the $88.7 billion state spending plan signed into law Friday by Gov. Rick Scott. The budget also includes $100 million for school resource officers, but school and law enforcement officials say that is not enough to pay for one officer at each of the state’s public schools.
“Let’s see how school boards evaluate, but there could be a circumstance where money is available,” Negron, R-Stuart, said during a lengthy interview Friday afternoon.
Superintendents of some large counties — including Broward, where the Parkland school is located — have said they will not participate in the guardian plan, which also requires the blessing of county sheriffs.
“Let’s see what happens. I hope school boards will consider it, but I accept the fact that many of them may not participate and I think … some of those surplus funds could be redeployed toward school resource officers,” Negron said. “That’s something I would support but I would encourage school boards to evaluate what they believe is best for their students, and that’s all we ask. This (the guardian program) is an option.”
It remains unknown how many of the state’s 67 school districts will apply for grants — which would cover training and a $500 equipment stipend for each school worker who participates — for the program. The Department of Education will administer the grants.
House Rules Chairman Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who will take over as House speaker after the November elections, said in a text Friday he would support allowing the Joint Legislative Budget Commission to redirect surplus funds “only after all counties had spoken on the question.” The commission includes House and Senate members and can make mid-year budget decisions.
The guardian program became a flashpoint for Democrats, students and teachers, many of whom opposed the plan.
For some, the legislation marked an important first step toward stricter gun regulations and a vital response to the Parkland community’s demand for action.
But for others, the guardian program was a deal-breaker.
Calling the program “scary,” black legislators objected that it would endanger minority children who are more likely to be punished at school. And the state teachers’ union asked Scott for a veto, saying the proposal allowing more than 200,000 school personnel to qualify to bring guns on campus would “do more harm than good.”
“We had to make a choice. Compromise is messy, especially when both chambers are controlled by Republicans,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who graduated from the Parkland high school, told the News Service after Scott signed the school-safety measure March 9. Moskowitz was among the lawmakers and victims’ family members present for the bill signing.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive