SPLC sues Florida school district for arming inadequately trained ‘school safety assistants’ with guns

M.D. is a fourth-grader who likes to play baseball, and science is his favorite subject.

M.D. also suffers from hearing loss. Before doctors diagnosed his disability and provided him with a hearing aid, his teachers sometimes thought he wasn’t listening to them. Even now, his hearing aid batteries sometimes run out of power while he is at school, and he is sometimes unable to immediately respond to teachers’ instructions.

His father, T.D., is very concerned about the Duval County, Florida, Public Schools’ new “School Safety Assistants” (SSA) Program, in which it hires armed safety assistants who are not trained law enforcement officers to patrol public schools.

T.D. worries that if an SSA gives his son a command and the hearing aid is not working at the time, his son’s lack of response might be interpreted as dangerous or threatening, and might put his son in harm’s way. He especially worries that because M.D. is African-American, an SSA might view him – as research suggests they might – as older and more threatening, potentially increasing the risk to his safety.

T.D. and M.D. are among a group of Jacksonville, Florida, elementary school students and their parents who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit the SPLC filed today against the Duval County Public Schools and the Duval County School Board. (The SPLC is using only the initials of the father and son to protect their identities.)

Under the school board’s new program, SSAs who have minimal training and are not law enforcement officers will carry concealed weapons in Duval County elementary schools. Jacksonville, Florida, is the seat of Duval County, and comprises the majority of the county’s population.

The lawsuit points out that Florida law makes it illegal for people to carry firearms on school property, unless they are law enforcement officers.

The lawsuit also argues that the hiring of minimally trained SSAs, who are not law enforcement officers and are not adequately trained to carry guns around young children – especially students of color and students with disabilities – will pose a threat to students with trauma, injury and death.

“With its ‘School Safety Assistants’ program, the Duval County Public Schools has implemented a misguided and illegal policy in the name of school safety,” said Zoe Savitsky, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “But armed ‘School Safety Assistants’ with limited training will not make our schools safer. Instead, this reckless and unlawful program threatens our most vulnerable children, turning schools from safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments into sites of potential danger and trauma.”

The Duval County Public Schools’ decision to hire and arm school safety assistants with guns traces back to the February school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed.

The shooting prompted conversations about school safety across the state and the nation, and led Florida’s Legislature to respond with SB 7026, a law that – among other things – raised the minimum age to buy a gun in Florida to 21, and created a legal mechanism to disarm extremely dangerous individuals. 

The law also required every school to employ a “safe-school officer” – either a sworn police officer or someone participating in a new “school safety assistants” program.

The Duval County Public Schools responded to this requirement by hiring SSAs, who are not law enforcement officers, to patrol elementary schools with concealed weapons.

The lawsuit points out that even though SB 7026 requires every school to hire a “safe-school officer,” it does not require those officers to be armed with guns. Further, the lawsuit explains, SB 7026 does not change another Florida law that bans people from carrying guns in schools – unless they are law enforcement officers.

The lawsuit comes two weeks after the legal team sent a letter to the Duval County School Board explaining why the SSA program was illegal, and giving it two weeks to change the program to comply with state law.

The letter explained that the individuals hired as SSAs receive substantially less training than law enforcement officers, particularly when it comes to dealing with young children. 

These concerns are especially troubling, the SPLC argued, in light of the fact that since 2014, there have been over 30 publicly reported incidents in which a gun was fired or negligently handled by armed adults in schools. This program is also troubling because data shows that students of color and students with disabilities are already more likely to be pushed out of their classrooms and schools and into the justice system. The program’s reliance on staff who are untrained in key topics like youth development and implicit bias turns those harmful possibilities into potentially deadly ones, the SPLC said.

The lawsuit explains that the Duval County School Board policy for SSAs puts the lives of thousands of students into the hands of inadequately trained personnel.

The lawsuit also states that the school board can legally eliminate this risk and meaningfully protect the children and educators of Jacksonville elementary schools by having unarmed school personnel create and promote comprehensive mental health services, develop emergency-response plans with law enforcement, serve as the point of contact for local child-serving agencies and first responders, ensure that entrances and exits are properly secured, train school staff and students in emergency preparedness, and undertake other safety-related functions.

“Arming non-law-enforcement employees with limited training is not just bad policy that’s against state law – it puts lives in danger,” Savitsky said. “Children’s lives are in danger, educators’ lives are in danger, and trained law enforcement officers’ lives are in danger. The last thing a first responder needs in a school crisis is the added uncertainty of whether the person armed with a gun is a minimally trained new employee or an active shooter.”

In addition to the SPLC, the plaintiffs are represented by Giffords Law Center, a member of the Firearms Accountability Counsel Taskforce; and the pro bono counsel of two law firms: Munger, Tolles & Olson; and Stearns Weaver Miller.

The League of Women Voters of Florida is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, representing its members who have children in Duval County Public Schools.

 “The League of Women Voters of Florida has long advocated against allowing unqualified citizens to carry firearms on school campuses,” said Patti Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “The idea that these ‘guards’ would keep our schools safer from gun violence is misguided and absurd.”

Photo by Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press