Florida lawmakers celebrated the passage of a school safety bill on Wednesday in response to last month’s shooting in Parkland. But the bill left some with a new concern.
Parents, civil rights groups and some Democratic lawmakers warn that part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act could have deadly unintended consequences for students of color.
The measure in question establishes a voluntary “guardian” program that allows personnel who meet certain criteria to carry firearms in schools.
Democrats in the Republican-controlled House and Senate fought unsuccessfully to remove the controversial provision from the legislation. They argued that minority students — who are often subject to disproportionate levels of punishment compared to their white counterparts and are more likely to be mistaken for perpetrators — could become targets.
“My voice was never heard,” lamented Miami-area Democratic Rep. Roy Hardemon. “No one heard our cry.”
Some parents of black students in the state said they would consider pulling their children from school if their district were to adopt the program.
“They’re going to be targeted. It’s going to be target practice,” said Sulaya Williams, a 35-year-old mother of three who works as an administrator at Broward Math & Science Schools just six miles away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Two of her three children attend the school where she works.
The shooting deaths of unarmed black men in recent years have put people of color on heightened alert, she said. She’s worried that young black and Hispanic children are already discriminated against by teachers who expect the worst from them.
“We’ve already been traumatized and looking over our shoulder after everything that happened with Trayvon Martin and what happened in Ferguson and everywhere else,” she said. “And now we’re going to be sitting here wondering are our kids going to be targets while going to school?”
Rep. Tracie Davis, a Democrat who represents part of Duval County in northeastern Florida, said the issue of gun violence “affects our communities in a way that some in this chamber will never understand.”
Rep. Cynthia Stafford, another Miami-area Democrat, called it a “dangerous policy.” She said she heard from parents and students who do not want more guns in schools, “So why are we doing this?” she asked.
The measure would raise the age to buy a firearm to 21 years old from 18 and would require a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, with some exceptions; ban the sale or possession of bump-fire stocks that allow a semiautomatic weapon to fire more like an automatic weapon; give law enforcement more power to seize weapons and ammunition from those deemed mentally unfit or otherwise a threat and provide additional funding for mental health services and armed school resource officers.
In one concession to Democrats, the Senate approved a requirement that potential guardians must undergo 12 hours of diversity training in addition to the 132 hours of firearms training already required. The measure was introduced by legislative black caucus member Sen. Randolph Bracy, who represents part of Orange County in the Orlando area. It was the only Democratic-sponsored amendment to pass and it remained part of the bill that passed the House.
The change did little to soothe the concerns of minority members of either chamber.
Opponents of the program also expressed concerns about how Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law would apply to teachers.
The law, made famous by the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, lets people use deadly force against if they feel their lives are in danger.
“They don’t have to prove it, if they feel it. As a result our neighborhoods have become even more dangerous,” said Rep. Amy Mercado, a Democrat of Puerto Rican descent from the Orlando area.
She decried the fact that the bill does not exempt teachers from being able to use Stand Your Ground to justify killing a student.
Rep. Sean Shaw, a Democrat from Tampa, echoed her concern.
“In a district like mine, arming teachers or school personnel and cloaking them in Stand Your Ground immunities (sic) in lots of schools where the children look like me is not something I’m prepared to do today or any day,” Shaw said. “That’s a proposition I cannot support. That’s a proposition my constituents cannot support.”