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In Florida, Plans To Arm School Staff Have Proven Controversial And Hard To Implement


In Florida today, a new bill to add teachers to the list of school workers who can carry weapons is getting a hearing. The idea was backed by the state commission that investigated the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. But implementing the so-called school guardian program hasn't been easy for the schools that have already been doing it with coaches and cafeteria workers. Katie Campione reported on this for the Tampa Bay Times last month. Welcome to the program.

KATIE CAMPIONE: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: All right. To start, you are a student at the University of Florida. How did you and your class get this idea to look into the school guardian program?

CAMPIONE: So we actually did this as part of our data journalism class, and our professors presented us with the idea of looking deeper into the school guardian program because nobody had really looked deeply into how this was going to be implemented. So we thought it would be a great idea to explore about how this was operating in Florida.

CORNISH: And so you start calling around districts. You start looking at newspaper reports. And what do you find in terms of the kind of problems that school systems were having?

CAMPIONE: So we found that in some districts, nobody applied because no one was interested in being in it. In other districts, they simply didn't have the time or the resources. So a lot of districts didn't have a program implemented by the beginning of the school year. And for the districts that were able to implement the program, there was some guardians acting irresponsibly on campus.

CORNISH: I want to come back to that in a moment, but first, the idea of nobody applying - how come? Talk about what it takes to get into the program and why it might be trouble for both applicants and schools.

CAMPIONE: So there are a lot of things that go into applying for the program. First and foremost, any applicants had to go through a background check, as well as a mental health check. Once they got through that process, they would have had to go through any firearm training, background training, diversity training that the district thought was necessary in order for them to be armed on campuses. A lot of the times, it would coincide with what the sheriff's office would have needed a deputy to go through in order to carry a firearm. So it was a pretty strenuous process, and they weren't able to find people who were the caliber they were looking for.

CORNISH: When school staff did sign up for the training, can you talk about what went wrong?

CAMPIONE: Yeah. So once guardians were implemented - in Hillsborough County, there was a guardian who accidentally pepper-sprayed some students after they asked her what the pepper spray was and what it did. She sprayed it into a napkin, and it went everywhere, as pepper spray does. And it got in the students' eyes. In Duval County, there was a school guardian who tried to pawn his service weapon twice. And in Manatee County, they actually found some posts on one of the school guardian's Facebook accounts that would allude to violence toward people who didn't share his beliefs.

CORNISH: Did you talk to some of the school districts who expressed frustration? What did they tell you?

CAMPIONE: Yeah. A lot of the school districts expressed frustration with the time that they were allotted. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act was pushed through at the end of the last legislative session due to the tragedy in Parkland. And so they either didn't have it ready in time for the start of the school year or they had a program that wasn't as robust as it could have been.

CORNISH: As a person who was formerly a high school student, for you, how did you come to think of this program?

CAMPIONE: I think that the Florida legislature did have great intentions when they were putting the bill together. It just didn't give schools enough time to enact a program that would be safe for students.

CORNISH: Thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for sharing your reporting.

CAMPIONE: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: That's Katie Campione, a student journalist at the University of Florida. She reported on the state school guardian program for the Tampa Bay Times.