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Florida Senate president says he supports arming teachers

Florida Sen. President Joe Negron, R-Stuart

Florida Senate President Joe Negron said Thursday that he supports arming school teachers, endorsing a controversial proposal a day after U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio rejected it.

"The concept of having teachers who are trained and have appropriate credentials being able to be armed to protect students, I would support that," he said Thursday.

Despite pushback from teachers, Negron's endorsement means that the proposal is likely to make it into a package of gun-related bills that will be made public Friday, in response to last week's shooting at a Broward County high school that left 17 people dead.

The model is likely to be based on a program created by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who allows teachers who want to be armed to go through specialized training, becoming partially deputized by sheriff's office.

They would then be able to carry a concealed gun on K-12 campuses, and only top administrators would know who they are. Only a local private university has taken up Judd's program.

Naturally, it's wildly controversial. And not just because chipping away at the number of "gun-free zones" in America is one of the top goals of the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups.

Even Rubio, during a Wednesday night townhall on CNN, expressed major reservations about the idea.

“I don’t support that, and I would admit to you right now, I answer that as much as a father as I do as a senator. The notion that my kids are going to school with teachers that are armed with a weapon is not something that, quite frankly, I’m comfortable with,” Rubio said.

Teachers and gun control advocates see a needless risk, from a gun falling into the hands of a student to getting shot by police who mistake a teacher with a gun with a bad guy.

"Just think of how many things that could go wrong with that," said Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

But there is a far more likely scenario: accidental shootings. Even the most experienced gun users - police officers - have accidents, and stories abound of police trainers and beat cops accidentally shooting themselves and others.

In truth, the idea of arming teachers is a fledgling one based more on theory than evidence.

So few schools in America allow teachers to carry guns that there are no examples of them deterring or stopping shooters.

On the other hand, observers can only point to one example of an armed teacher creating a danger to others, when a Utah middle school teacher mishandled a handgun and fired into a toilet in 2014. (A professor in Idaho accidentally shot himself in the foot that same year, but he was on a college campus.)

If legislators approve it, Florida would become the ninth state to allow some people to carry concealed weapons on school grounds, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Across the country, more than 1,300 teachers in 200 school districts across 12 states have undergone training to be armed, according to Jim Irvine, the president of the Buckeye Firearms Foundation, a nonprofit that has become a pioneer in such training.

After the Sandy Hook massacre, which left 20 kids and six teachers dead, he said he pitched offering training for free to teachers in Ohio.

"We were mocked," Irvine said. "People said, 'Teachers don’t want to carry guns. You think teachers want to sign up for your class?' In a couple weeks, we had a thousand people apply to be trained."

One of those people was Jeff Staggs, the superintendent of the Newcomerstown schools, a small, 1,100-student school district in rural Ohio.

He said that after parents brought the idea to his school board, he and other staffers and teachers went through Irvine's training. He would not say how many people now carry concealed weapons in the district's four buildings, citing security concerns.

"It is not talked about a lot," Staggs said. "It's taken for granted that we have this layer of security."

He said the teachers in the program undergo extra scrutiny year-round. They're drug tested multiple times a year, and he said that if administrators have concerns about them, the teachers are expected to answer "any questions of any type" about their personal or private lives.

"Your life’s an open book," Staggs said.

Grady's program, known as the "Sentinel Program," goes further than even Irvine's three-day training: extensive background checks, 132 hours of training and quarterly recertification. He touts that the people who go through the program are deputized, but they're only allowed to use their weapons to confront an active shooter.

The only school that has taken him up on the program is Southeastern University, a private liberal arts college in Lakeland. Nine teachers and staffers there carry concealed weapons, and only top administrators know who they are, according to university President Kent Ingle.

Ingle said that having trained staffers on campus, in addition to police officers, has been universally well-received by teachers and students.

"They are definitely highly trained, and that is what is important," he said. "We didn’t want this to be a free-for all."

But he said it comes with a cost. He said 30 percent of the school's security budget - a few hundred thousand dollars - goes to retraining the nine staffers and teachers at the sheriff's office each year.

Florida teachers are adamantly opposed to the idea, according to Luke Flynt, secretary-treasurer of the Florida Education Association.

"They do not want to be armed with guns, no," he said. "They want to be armed with the tools to do their jobs."

While data on accidental police shootings is rare, one study of New York Police Department shootings showed that between 1999 and 2006, officers accidentally shot their weapons 216 times.

And in an active shooter situation, police occasionally mistake plainclothes officers for suspects. Irvine, the Ohio trainer, said that he warns participants that they could be shot by police responding to an active shooter situation.

"That’s the risk you take taking on this role, and you have to be comfortable with that risk," he said.

Despite the risks, it has the support of several politicians and some sheriffs. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas High in 1999 and whose district includes the school, said the decision as to whether to selectively arm teachers should be made by local sheriffs and school boards, not the Legislature.

"They (Republican lawmakers) could state mandate it. They could do it by local control. They could only allow a couple of teachers," Moskowitz said. "They could do it like an air marshal on a plane. They could have a couple of teachers go through mass shooting drills ... That power should belong with the school district and the local sheriff. It should not be mandated by the state."

Irvine, the Ohio trainer, said he has mixed feelings about the debate over his program.

"I’m proud of the program and I’m proud of the people who work in it, but I’m disheartened that we need it," Irvine said. "It’s an absolute failure of our society that we’re even having this discussion."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.