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Debate Over Arming Teachers Inflames Racial Tensions In Legislature

Reps. Larry Lee and Shevrin Jones speak on the floor of the state House of Representatives last year. The black caucus is opposing a gun control and school safety bill over a plan to arm teachers.
The Florida House
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The white Republican leaders of the Florida Legislature believe giving guns to school staff members will help protect students.

But black members in both houses warn it could endanger them — particularly children of color, who are often disciplined more harshly than their white peers in school.

A contentious hours-long debate on Tuesday exposed a stark racial divide in the Florida House.

The chamber voted down an amendment that would have removed the plan for arming some school personnel from a broader bill devised in response to the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland. The Legislature’s black caucus is opposing the bill because of the provision, which would allow staff who are not “exclusively” classroom teachers to carry concealed firearms.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park, proposed a separate amendment that would strip school staff members who carry guns from some of the rights under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. The measure allows people to legally shoot and even kill others if they believe their lives are in danger.

“Whether it’s Trayvon Martin, whether it’s Corey Jones, or whether it’s 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins — who was killed by a stray bullet in her household and her killer claimed Stand Your Ground, I don’t want this to happen in our classrooms as an unintended consequence to our students,” said Jones, referring to high-profile events when people of color were killed and their shooters cited Stand Your Ground as a defense.

During the debate, a white Republican, Rep. Elizabeth Porter from Lake City in North Florida, accused her colleagues of insinuating teachers are “racists” and “bigots” and urged her colleagues to consider the legislation rationally rather than emotionally.

The House is set to vote on the overall bill on Wednesday.

The Senate has already passed it. Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, a black Democrat from Miami Gardens, said the caucus sees the question of arming teachers as a civil rights issue rather than a gun safety issue.

“We would believe that the classroom should be a safe haven for these children,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to worry about, ‘Well, I just hope my teacher doesn’t get too upset at me and pulls a gun.' ”

Braynon said he spoke to his son about the legislation, and the boy said he would have trouble concentrating in class if he knew his teacher had a gun.

“That’s how children in our community see guns. They see them as a bad thing,” Braynon said. “They do not see them as something that keeps you safe. They see them as the thing that possibly could hurt you.”

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.