In 2018, the Duval County School Board in Florida began hiring armed civilians, known as “school safety assistants,” to patrol the district’s elementary schools. The program threatened the safety of thousands of students by opening the door for inadequately trained assistants – who are not law enforcement officers – to carry guns. The SPLC and its allies filed a lawsuit to end the program.
The lawsuit describes how the program not only puts students at risk but violates a Florida law that prohibits carrying guns in schools. The law exempts law enforcement officers, but the school safety assistants are not law enforcement officers.
The lawsuit also outlines how the school safety assistants are not adequately trained to carry guns around young children – especially students of color and students with disabilities – risking trauma, injury and death.
The Duval County Public Schools’ decision to hire and arm school safety assistants can be traced back to the February 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed.
The Florida Legislature responded with SB 7026, a law that, among other things, required every school to employ a “safe-school officer” – either a law enforcement officer or a “school guardian,” a school employee who receives training that is much less extensive than that provided to law enforcement.
The Duval County Public Schools hired the school safety assistants to serve as school guardians and 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, SB 7026 does not change a pre-existing Florida law that bans people from carrying guns in schools unless they are law enforcement officers.
The lawsuit was filed two weeks after the SPLC sent a letter to the Duval County School Board explaining why the school safety assistant program was illegal. The board was given two weeks to comply with state law by changing the program, but declined to do so.
The lawsuit also explains that the school board can meaningfully protect children and educators 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 functions.