The Phoenix Flyer

Lawsuit against Duval County schools aims to stop “illegal” gun program on campuses

By: - November 29, 2018 2:03 pm
Zion Kelly

March For Our Lives member Zion Kelly addresses a gathered crowd of press Monday, Nov. 5, on the steps of Tallahassee’s Old Capitol building as part of a Vote For Our Lives initiative to urge people to vote ahead of last November’selection. CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

A group of parents and elementary students and the League of Women Voters of Florida filed a lawsuit Thursday against Duval public schools, saying a district gun program allows “inadequately trained individuals who are not law enforcement officers to carry guns while policing public schools.”

The school board-adopted program is illegal — posing serious risks to children — and should be stopped, according to the lawsuit filed in Duval County Circuit Court.

The San Francisco-based Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Montgomery, AL-based Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as other attorneys, are representing the plaintiffs.

The gun program stems from school safety legislation in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which the Legislature passed after killings at the Broward County high school in Parkland in February 2018. A shooter killed 17 students and staffers.

The law requires school districts to provide school safety officers at every school. The officers can be trained law enforcement officers and traditional, certified school resource officers usually assigned to high schools and some middle schools.

The new normal in Florida came when elementary schools this school year were required to have armed officers on campuses.

The law also includes a controversial “school guardian” program, allowing certain school employees – not law enforcement officers — to be armed to aid in incidents on campus. With some exceptions, those guardians can’t be teachers who exclusively perform classroom duties.

That guardian program is being opposed by a variety of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, and the Moms Demand Action group in Florida.

And now comes a lawsuit against Duval County Public Schools and the Duval County School Board.

The lawsuit outlines that the board did not want to arm existing employees, so they hired “school safety assistants” (SSAs) to serve as guardians and carry concealed weapons in more than 100 elementary school campuses.

The school safety assistants were a cheaper option for the district, earning far less and getting less training compared to certified school police officers, according to the lawsuit.

Nevertheless, the school board allowed the school safety assistants to carry guns – which, the lawsuit says, is illegal in Florida. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas law, according to the lawsuit, “does not actually authorize guardians to carry guns in schools.”

In addition, the lawsuit points out the significant risks of the gun program in schools, saying, “There is a broad public health consensus, based on extensive research, that introducing firearms into an environment increases the risk of death or injury from firearms.”

In fact, the school board’s decision to arm school safety assistants “will endanger tens of thousands of young children” in the county. And students “have experienced and will experience emotional distress from attending or sending their children to public schools in a dangerous environment.”

The risks could mean children will be injured, killed, and traumatized “by inadequately trained SSAs carrying firearms,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also notes that there are other ways to help make schools safe besides arming non-law enforcement personnel.

The efforts would include “making high-quality mental health treatment widely available; developing proactive crisis and emergency plans; creating communication networks among school employees, community members, law enforcement, and mental health professionals to identify and intervene with potentially at-risk students while respecting student privacy; developing policies to de-escalate school-based conflicts; and relying on trained law enforcement to manage serious disasters. “

“Unarmed school guardians could meaningfully contribute to these safety efforts,” the lawsuit says.



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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.