Vivid in Joy Jackson’s memory is the sound of a bullet whistling just past her ear, fired towards her head during an incident at the Miami school where she is a teacher.
A teenage student with an emotional/behavioral disorder had brought the gun to campus, and as it was being secured by a police officer, the weapon accidentally discharged. Nobody was hurt but the incident a few years ago certainly alarmed Jackson.
“I felt the air coming close by my ear,” she told the Guardian this week. “It was so close that the people in the office started screaming because they thought I was shot,” she said. “And that was with a trained police officer [at the scene]. Can you only imagine it with a teacher that hadn’t gone through all the training that officer had?”
The experience is central to Jackson’s conviction that the Florida legislature’s decision last week to allow educators to possess firearms in their classrooms– a recommendation of the commission that investigated the 2018 Parkland high school massacre – could prove catastrophic.
“Imagine a student with an emotional behavioral disability with a gun, or a teacher that maybe has become afraid of a student – who says the student won’t be able to disarm them?” said Jackson, 65, a teacher with more than four decades’ experience working with special needs students.
“The first thing you do is pull out [a weapon]. Who’s going to protect that educator if that gun goes off by mistake? As far as arming teachers is concerned, I am so 100% against it until I can’t see straight. It’s the most dangerous decision I have ever heard.”
Jackson, who works at the Robert Renick educational center in Miami Gardens, a school for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students with emotional and behavioral difficulties, sees the controversial bill as the work of powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyists in Tallahassee working with the state’s Republican lawmakers.
“I know the NRA gives humungous money to lobbyists, I get it,” she said. “But this is more than money. You can’t pay for a life. If the NRA wants to do something, pay for more officers to be in these buildings, not someone who’s not received the proper training.”
Jackson was one of several Florida teachers sharing with the Guardian their concerns at the arming of teachers, opposed 57-40% in a Quinnipiac poll in March. The bill now awaits Republican governor Ron DeSantis’s expected signature, to become law.
‘Unrealistic’ training goals
Kyle Savage, a 5th grade teacher at Cape View elementary school in Cape Canaveral, is a former military police officer with extensive experience in handling guns, and has a background that would seem to make him an ideal candidate for Florida’s “armed guardian” programme.
But as he had testified to politicians, he doesn’t believe teachers can fill the role of a professional armed presence on campus. “The training requirements aren’t realistic,” said Savage, 33.
“I’m OK with a highly trained cop, a school resource officer, it’s a good thing, we need that. My fear is we’re going to have under-trained teachers making life or death decisions that aren’t going to turn out good.”
Financing the programme is another concern of Savage, in a state that ranks 48th in the nation for teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association.
“In public education Florida we’re finding obvious ways not to spend money, so I find it hard to believe now we’re going to spend money to make sure a teacher can go the range, the teacher has the proper training, year in year out that teacher has the training they need,” he said.
“I want my kids to know that I’m a teacher, I love them, I care for them, I don’t want them to think, ‘Well, my teacher has a gun on the side of his hip today.’ It changes the whole environment in the classroom.”
That separation is why Savage is reluctant to bring his military experience into his classroom. “I’ve thought about the question a lot,” he said. “Do I think I could take down an active shooter? Yes, 100%. The question I ask myself is would I regret it afterwards? It conflicts me, I’ll be honest.”
Although the new law allows individual school districts to opt out – and several of the state’s largest counties including Miami-Dade, Broward, Pinellas and Hillsborough have all stated their teachers will not be carrying guns in public schools – Florida has more than 3,000 private and charter schools that can decide individually. For example a charter school in Manatee county raised eyebrows earlier this school year by hiring a former combat veteran to patrol in military fatigues and an assault rifle.
“We are teachers. We’re not intended to be like policemen and security people. We are not meant to carry weapons,” said Lesly Chamate, 44, an art teacher at a small private school in Broward county who said she would probably quit if her colleagues came to school armed.
“Teachers and guns don’t go together. How do you know how they’re going to react in the moment? If you want to do that become a policeman, go and join the army.
“It seems crazy, an art teacher with a weapon. In middle school classes scissors are banned. How can you have weapons?”
Students are also fearful. Derek Thomerson, 12, is in middle school at a prestigious private campus in South Florida, where his mother Kelley is a pre-K teacher. He says he cannot imagine her in possession of what he calls “a killing machine”.
“Teachers having weapons creates an additional layer of anxiety for the students and the teachers,” said Thomerson, who won middle school recognition for a speech he presented denouncing the measure.
“What if the teachers shoots or harms the wrong child? People say we need to protect students but arming teachers is only going to hurt them… literally hurt them if a teacher misplaces his or her gun and a student gets hold of it.”
Education advocates who support the bill, however, insist that its detractors have it wrong, and that the law is a “common sense” measure that will better protect students and teachers.
“We were in the room when Sheriff Bob Gualtieri [the Parkland commission chair] made a compelling argument that while this may not be a perfect solution he believed we needed to do what we can, take action and not wait,” said Rick Stevens, managing director of the Florida Citizens Alliance, a right-leaning education advocacy group that includes educators among its membership.
“Even if we tried we couldn’t hire enough law enforcement officers to achieve what needs to be accomplished They’re just not available.”
Stevens also takes exception to the assertion that the law amounts to the widespread arming of teachers.
“It simply allows teachers, if they choose, and if they qualify, to carry a weapon, then they can be a last line of defence to defend the lives of our students,” he said. “We’re not forcing anyone to. We don’t understand why that’s not a sensible solution to a potential problem.
“It’s a huge responsibility, there’s no question about it. If they feel comfortable taking on that responsibility and they qualify and pass the training why shouldn’t we give them an opportunity to protect our students?”