Fred Guttenberg recently made a grim prediction on Twitter.
“The next school shooter may be a teacher,” the Parkland dad wrote.
It was May 8, the day Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill allowing trained teachers to carry guns in Florida classrooms.
Guttenberg called it "a terrible idea."
His daughter, Jaime Guttenberg, was one of 17 people shot and killed last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Florida's newly expanded "Guardian" program is supposed to make schools safer in the wake of that massacre.
Guttenberg believes it will do the opposite.
“What happened to my daughter, thank God, is an infrequent occurrence — these mass shootings," he told me. "They are happening more than they used to, but still infrequent."
“You’re now going to add guns into the reality of everyday school violence, of everyday school pranks,” Guttenberg said.
Imagine a teacher spooked by a practical joke or threatened while breaking up a fight. What if an armed school guardian faces a mental health crisis?
The result of this law, Guttenberg is convinced, will be more school violence — not less.
More guns, more violence
Is he being hyperbolic? Is it outrageous to think a firearms-trained classroom teacher could commit the very crime the law aims to prevent?
We don’t have to look far back in Florida’s history to consider the possibility. Six months ago, a former teacher opened fire on strangers in a yoga studio in Tallahassee.
Read more commentary:
Scott Beierle, an Army veteran, shot and killed two people and himself on Nov. 2. A decade earlier, he taught English and social studies at a middle school in Maryland. In recent years, he worked as a substitute teacher in Leon and Volusia counties in Florida.
If the expanded Guardian program had been in place when Beierle was teaching, he could have applied for certification to carry a gun on campus. In participating counties, school employees can get certified by sheriff's offices if they:
- Have a valid license.
- Complete a 144-hour training program that includes firearm safety and proficiency.
- Pass an initial drug test and subsequent random drug tests.
- Complete ongoing training and annual weapon inspections.
- Pass a psychological evaluation administered by a psychologist.
Once all those boxes are checked, there's one more big hurdle: A school district superintendent (or, for charters, the charter school principal) must appoint the certified employee as a guardian.
There's a $500 incentive for school employees to pack heat on campus. That’s the amount of the one-time stipend teachers can receive for serving as guardians.
Would substitute teachers such as Beierle qualify? There's no specific prohibition against them in the law. I contacted the Florida Department of Education to verify if they could apply in participating counties; as of this writing, I've not heard back with an answer.
And, of course, Beierle worked as a full-time teacher in Maryland. What if he'd gotten a full-time job in Florida?
Background checks don't go far enough
The psychological evaluation required by Florida's Guardian program might seem to offer comfort — but Beierle passed multiple mental health tests. He had a history of hatred toward women. He gave off a "psychopathic vibe" in the classroom, yet he was allowed to teach.
"Here’s an example of a person who exhibited violent behavior toward women for his whole life, really since middle school — and yet he got through background checks, he got through mental evaluations," said Jeff Binkley, whose daughter, Maura, was one of two women killed in the yoga studio.
After their daughter's death, Binkley and his wife co-founded an initiative called Maura's Voice (with the research arm housed at Florida State University) so data can be used to inform gun policy.
Binkley is not convinced that's happening in Florida.
Florida's new law doesn't require ongoing psychological evaluations for Guardian program participants. What if a school employee is stable when certified, but later struggles with mental health?
“A psych exam is not going to pick up a sociopath on the first pass," Binkley said. "It’s unlikely.”
Passing a law is one thing, he noted. Implementation of good policy is another.
So far, 30 of Florida's 67 school districts have opted to participate in some version of the Guardian program. The expansion of the law means they will have the option of arming classroom teachers, too. So far, interest has been muted — but the new law is less than two weeks old.
School districts in Florida are perennially underfunded and short-staffed. Last year, the state couldn't come up with enough money to put a trained law enforcement officer in every public school. That's part of the reason the Guardian program was expanded.
It will be another burden to manage. Superintendents will face enormous responsibility when they consider whether to arm school employees who get certified by sheriff's offices.
Guttenberg points out Beierle was not an anomaly.
A couple weeks after the Parkland shooting, in late February 2018, a social studies teacher in Georgia barricaded himself in the classroom and fired a gunshot when the principal tried to open the door. Jesse Randall Davidson was sentenced to two years in prison.
Adding more guns to school campuses, and to the emotional reality of dealing with students, is a risk.
“There’s going to be mistakes,” Guttenberg said.
Yet the Florida legislature forged ahead with this untested plan. DeSantis quietly signed the bill without ceremony.
Time will tell whether Guttenberg was being alarmist or pragmatic.
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: New law arming teachers might backfire — mass shooting victims have seen it happen