A judge in Duval County, Florida says he is likely to rule against gun control groups, parents, and students who are challenging the Duval County Public Schools’ decision to have armed “school safety assistants” in place in campuses to protect students, though he’s giving the attorneys for the gun control groups one more chance to make their argument.
The parents and students, who are being assisted in their legal fight by attorneys with the gun control group Giffords as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center, claim the local school system has no legal authority to allow anyone except law enforcement to be armed on campus. Judge Robert M. Dees, on the other hand, appears to disagree, noting during a hearing on Monday that while there may be some ambiguity about the law, it seems clear that legislators intended for the state’s Guardian program to allow for armed school staff.
When Duval Schools couldn’t afford to hire enough school police officers to place one at every campus within the district — a mandated state law that came from the safety act — the school board opted to use school safety assistants to fill that void. The safety assistants are trained, armed, non-law enforcement officers to patrol elementary schools across Duval County.
But the program quickly received criticism, with opposition pointing to a Florida law that makes it illegal for anyone besides law enforcement to carry guns on campus.
“This boils down to whether they [the school district] have the power to enact this policy,” Justin Raphael, lead attorney for the students and parents suing the school district. “No court has addressed that question … The reality is that they [the school board’s representation] have not pointed to a section here today or in their brief that says schools don’t commit a crime by allowing guns in their school.”
The City Attorney for Jacksonville, Florida, Jon Phillips, pointed out to the judge that one section of the law may forbid anyone other than law enforcement from carrying, but that subsequent legislation allows for trained and vetted school staff to take part in the Guardian program and be armed on campus.
Still, Phillips said the Senate bill that implemented the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission act clarified that guardians are authorized to carry firearms in schools.
“How we got here is somewhat convoluted but our position and our motion is that it’s abundantly clear that everything they’re saying is not correct,” he said. “These people are carrying firearms right now because it’s authorized.”
Philips went on to say that there are “no allegations that the school board did anything illegal other than authorize what was mandated by the state.”
Ultimately, the judge decided that, while there may be some confusion in state law, the intent of the legislature was clear.
“Even though I think it was a passive way to authorize guardians to carry firearms, I do think that they intended to bring school guardians within the exception to those who are prevented from carrying firearms on school campuses,” he said. “So that’s going to be the ruling.”
Dees gave the plaintiffs’ side a week to amend their complaint or decide if they want to appeal.
“The judge held that the program does comply but the law is ambiguous,” said senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center Sam Boyd. “We shouldn’t imply exceptions. We’re going to asses the situation with our client.”
Boyd said the SPLC’s stance remains that more guns in people who aren’t police officers make people less safe.
That’s ultimately what this boils down to- the belief by gun control advocates that guns are bad, so fewer guns must be good. From the school district’s perspective, however, it’s about doing what is necessary to stop a school shooter. As the City Attorney put it, “These people are saying no because what we really want is another dead Aaron Feis. That man rushed a shooter unarmed and he died for it.”
Feis was the assistant football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida who was killed while trying to stop the attack. After the attack in Parkland, Florida, lawmakers put the Guardian program in place allowing for non-teaching staff to be trained to carry firearms. The law has since been modified to allow trained and vetted teachers to carry as well.
The gun control groups may end up taking advantage of the opportunity to file an amended complaint, but for now the kids in Duval County will remain protected, not only by school resource officers, but by the armed school safety assistants as well.