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Lawsuit Challenges Florida's Post-Parkland Plan to Arm Some School Employees

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A Florida district's decision to put armed "school safety assistants" in its elementary schools puts the safety and well-being of its students at risk and oversteps existing state law, a group of Florida families contend in a lawsuit filed this week.

The suit—filed by seven unnamed families and the League of Women Voters of Florida—names the Duval County district and its school board as defendents. If the plaintiffs prevail, they may create a domino effect that upends the armed security plans of school districts around the state.

The suit challenges the Duval district's security plan, which it put in place to comply with a new state law—passed less than a month after 17 people were killed in the shootingat Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act requires districts to staff every school with a "safe-school officer," who can be either a law enforcement officer or a designated school employee who may be trained through a special "school guardian" program created under the broad new law. 

But, while the new law requires recipients of that school-guardian training obtain firearms instruction, the text of the bill signed into law does not require them to carry weapons in schools and it does not override existing laws that prohibit anyone but trained law enforcement officers from carrying firearms in public schools, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit—filed with support from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Giffords Law Center, which supports restrictions on guns in schools—notes that even trained law enforcement officials have had accidents with guns in schools or have gotten involved in punitive school discipline.

"Arming [school safety assistants] increases the risk of these incidents because SSAs are asked to carry out quasi-law enforcement duties without the training and experience that law enforcement officers have," the lawsuit says. "According to the chief of [Duval County Public Schools] police department, SSAs will have a broad but undefined mandate to patrol campuses, assist with discipline, and break up fights. However, the program provides SSAs with little to no training in how to communicate with and manage children in a manner appropriate to their development, work in diverse school communities, engage with vulnerable students, or de-escalate conflicts."

The plaintiffs include parents of a child who is hard of hearing. They are concerned that he may be incorrectly viewed as defiant by a security officer if he doesn't respond to a command due to a malfunctioning hearing aid, the suit says. Another plaintiff, the parent of a black student with a disability, is concerned his son may be seen as "older and more threatening by law enforcement and SSAs, compounding the increased risk caused by [his] disability."

"A school district would fully comply with the Act's Safe School Officer Requirement by designating unarmed guardians whose job would include implementing key elements of the consensus approach to school safety recommended by experts in the field, such as: developing emergency-response plans with law enforcement, serving as the point of contact for local police, ensuring that entrances and exits are properly secured, training school staff and students in emergency preparedness, and fulfilling other security functions," the lawsuit says.

A spokesperson for the Duval County district said it cannot comment on ongoing litigation. That spokesperson did not respond to questions about the district's current security personnel.

The lawsuit fits into a broader, ongoing debate about arming teachers and school staff. Last week, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is the chairman of the state-appointed taskforce investigating the Parkland shooting, said after watching surveillance video of the massacre at Stoneman Douglas, he now believes that arming some teachers and other school staff is an important line of defense against school shootings.

You can learn more about Education Week's coverage of that issue in this roundup: Should Teachers Carry Guns? The Debate, Explained

Photo: Silhouette targets used by Broward County Public Schools' newly-hired armed guardians are shown after firearms training at the Broward Sheriff's Office gun range in Markham Park on July 30, 2018, in Sunrise, Fla. Districts around the state armed school employees under a new state law passed after a school shooting in Parkland, which is in Broward County. --Wilfredo Lee/AP


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