Some school employees in Florida will soon be able to carry weapons to protect against school shooters. But at least 19 times, such employees have shown dangerous behavior themselves.
Note: This story contains offensive language.
1. In Miami Lakes, a guidance counselor said he would “shoot” the administrative staff, if he had a gun.
2. In St. Lucie County, a social worker threatened to kill his supervisor.
3. In Fort Myers, a middle-school assistant principal yanked a school employee by the hair and hit her on the back of her head, hard. When the school district investigated, he told a witness: “Don’t f--- with me, I’ll f------ kill you.” He still has a teaching license.
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Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Friday that lets some school employees carry guns on campus.
The legislation (SB 7026) lets school districts arm any employee who isn’t solely a full-time teacher.
School districts won’t be required to participate. But they and local sheriffs will be allowed to appoint and train “school marshals” to help stop a school shooting.
Supporters say the measure will make schools safer in the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead. That includes President Donald Trump, who has said armed school employees would be a “very inexpensive deterrent” to shooters.
“Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them,” he Tweeted last month.
But the state’s own records show that isn’t always true.
At least 19 times, employees working in the “school support” roles that will make them eligible to carry a gun have been disciplined by the Florida Department of Education for threatening students or colleagues, hurting kids or using firearms illegally.
Tampa Bay Times reporters found the cases by downloading and searching discipline files for licensed educators in Florida. The review was not exhaustive, and did not include schools employees who are not licensed, like janitors and cafeteria workers, but who still could be armed under the new law.
Many of the individuals have since left education. Some still have active licenses.
To be sure, cases like these are extremely rare, and would occur in any large-enough group of people. There are thousands of principals, assistant principals, coaches, librarians, guidance counselors and social workers in Florida’s schools. The overwhelming majority never get in trouble.
Still, opponents of the legislation say allowing thousands more guns inside schools will drastically increase the likelihood of something going wrong.
“These people are so stressed and we’re gonna put a gun in their hand,” said Rep. Larry Lee, a Port St. Lucie Democrat who was once a school employee. “It’s going to have some unintentional consequences.”
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4. In Santa Rosa Beach, a high-school athletic director punched a football player in the throat twice during practice, leaving him in pain and gasping for breath.
5. In St. Petersburg, a high-school football coach put a 17-year-old in a headlock, then wrestled him to the ground. When the student got up, the coach shoved him to the ground again. After another coach separated them, the coach called the student a “f------ p----.”
6. In the Florida Panhandle, a coach pulled a 16-year-old student’s shirt over his face, then shoved him into a television cart, held his head on the floor, kneed him in the hip and yelled in his face.
7. In Port Charlotte, a coach grabbed a 16-year-old by the arms and throat, lifted him off the floor, and repeatedly slammed him into a wall. When another student tried to intervene, the coach shoved him through a set of doors onto the floor.
8. In West Palm Beach, a football coach hit a student in the back of the head. Four months later, he hit another student in the chest.
9. In Naples, a high-school head football coach threw a helmet into a 16-year-old boy’s back, then shoved a 17-year-old into a locker, then threw another 17-year-old into the bathroom and slammed him into several walls as part of a planned motivational halftime speech.
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Even though the bill has been signed into law, it’s still not clear exactly which employees will be allowed to carry a gun.
The language is ambiguous, and lawmakers made last-minute changes.
“We don’t know who would be allowed to have the gun,” Rep. Lori Berman, a Palm Beach County Democrat, said during an emotional debate Tuesday. “We joke that it’s the lunch lady, but it’s not really a joke.”
The final version allows any school employee to volunteer except “individuals who exclusively perform classroom duties as classroom teachers.”
Earlier versions allowed any employee to be armed. The change was a compromise intended to quell ardent opposition from teachers, parents and students across the state — it didn’t — and get buy in from Scott, who had expressed concerns.
Before the bill was signed, Rep. Jose Oliva, a Republican from Miami Lakes, said someone who was both a coach and a teacher would be a candidate, “if they so chose.”
It’s unclear how many teachers will qualify, or how easily teachers could take on a new role to meet the requirements. Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward County Democrat and critic of the proposal, pointed out that many teachers already take on duties outside of the classroom.
The Times identified more than 80 educators — including the 19 support workers — who acted violently, made threats or were charged with a gun crime.
Thirteen specifically threatened to shoot their students. They include a teacher in Palm Beach County who sent “frightfully aggressive” emails to other teachers and administrators and told students she would blow them up if she had a gun. An art teacher in Orlando threatened to shoot an elementary-school student “right between the eyes” if he spilled any paint.
Another teacher told a colleague he used pictures of students for target practice, and wished one kid would show up on his property so he could shoot him. An employee at the Polk County school recalled the teacher saying, “They should worry about me shooting up the place.”
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10. In Inverness, a girls’ soccer coach pleaded guilty to dealing firearms without a license after he sold more than a dozen guns, including an M-11/9 to an undercover ATF agent.
11. In Sebring, a football coach got into a fight with three women at his home and shot a gun at their vehicle multiple times.
12. In Tallahassee, a coach threatened his neighbor with a shotgun.
13. In Duval County, a behavior specialist was charged with illegally carrying a concealed weapon.
14. In Miami-Dade, a middle-school assistant principal threatened to fatally shoot his child and his child’s mother.
15. In Palatka, a wrestling coach hit his girlfriend. A month later, she refused to let him inside, and the coach shot off several rounds from his .38-caliber semiautomatic. He still has a teaching license.
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The new law has safeguards designed to prevent dangerous or unstable people from becoming school marshals.
Schools employees who want to carry firearms on campus will need a valid concealed weapon license, meaning they could not be a convicted felon or have been committed to a mental institution.
They will also have to complete 132 hours of firearms instruction and a 12-hour diversity training program, pass a drug test and undergo a psychological evaluation.
Nationally, somewhere around 15 percent of potential police and public safety workers fail pre-employment psychological screenings, said Gary Fischler, a police and forensic psychologist in Minneapolis.
The tests are designed to identify problems with emotional stability, impulsiveness or ethics, as well as alcohol and drug problems, said Fischler, a former chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Psychological Services Section. Those traits are put to the test in high-stress situations like a school shooting.
But of course, no test is perfect.
“No psychological evaluation can predict with 100 percent certainty who’s going to be a good police officer or who’s not,” Fischler said, adding that the same would be true for school staff in law enforcement roles.
Plus, he said, people change. Retesting every few years could identify that, he added.
But the bill does not call for retests.
Responding to the newspaper’s findings, Oliva said he doubted any of the workers identified in the Times analysis would have passed the psychological evaluation.
In most cases, it’s impossible to say whether they would have met the school marshal program requirements before they were disciplined. In some cases, they might still meet the requirements even after.
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16. In Palm Beach County, a middle-school principal brought a toy revolver and a BB gun to school, then pressed the toy revolver against a 12-year-old student’s neck.
17. In Pensacola, a football and girls’ weightlifting coach was caught sending inappropriate text messages to a 14-year-old girl. Despondent, he punched holes in the walls of his home and grabbed a gun and threatened to shoot himself. After teaching for 22 years, it was the first time he’d gotten in trouble.
18. In Miami, a guidance counselor told an assistant principal: “I know where you are at. I am going to get you. I will gas this building. You don’t know me. You know I am bipolar. I am crazy.”
19. In Apopka, a curriculum resource teacher at Wheatley Elementary School walked into a classroom and began to pray. She screamed at the students before her, telling them that Jesus was at the school and that Hell is real. She told the students Jesus wants them to quit football, basketball and the step team. She told them that by the time they got home, their parents or grandparents might have been taken in the Rapture. She pointed at a staff member and told the students: “Look at all these demons.” The students were scared; some were crying. Staff members ushered them out. Upset at the intrusion, the teacher called her husband. “They are doing what you said they would do,” she told him. “Is that what I should do, then? … Cut off their heads?” Then she went home.
Times data reporter Connie Humburg and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
This project made use of technology from DocumentCloud.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]. Contact Neil Bedi at [email protected]. Contact Langston Taylor at [email protected]. Contact Adam Playford at [email protected].