A group of Jacksonville parents and the League of Women Voters are suing the Duval County School District for hiring armed guards to patrol school grounds.
The so-called “safety assistant” plan is a response to a state law passed this year after the Parkland school shooting.
Florida Coastal Law School Dean Scott DeVito believes the parents have a case. He said a previous state law forbids anyone other than police officers from carrying guns on campus.
“Nowhere does it actually say they should be armed. And that’s the conflict that the plaintiffs are bringing up here. You have a statute that clearly says only police officers are allowed to be on campus with weapons,” DeVito said. “And then you have this Senate Bill which seems to indicate guardians should also be armed, but it doesn’t say that they should.”
Senate Bill 7026, also known as the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act”, gave sheriff's offices the permit to establish a school guardian program. The Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which has more than $67 million in state funding, allows school districts to employ non-police security who “complete 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training, pass psychological evaluation, submit to and pass drug tests.”
Duval County Public Schools adopted the program in May. According to the district, its safety assistants undergo 200 hours of training from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. The intention is to staff all elementary schools with the safety assistants.
The school district also employees 82 sworn law enforcement officers, who patrol middle and high schools.
The plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Poverty Center and Giffords Law Center, allege that the program not only puts students at risk — it also violates Florida law that prohibits carrying guns in schools.
DeVito said he understands the concerns raised in the lawsuit, but he also recognizes that the school district is looking for the most cost-effective way to legally satisfy the requirements set by the state.
“I think that Duval is doing their best to try do what the statute, or what the bill requires, and in this case because of the limit to funds they’re going through the guardian process [via] a less expensive method,” he said.
DeVito said there is not a legal precedent for this case that he knows of, so the court will likely have to rely on statutory interpretation.
What the court will have to decide is whether the Senate Bill expands the right to carry arms on campus. And that decision, he said, will have wide ranging implications.
“It does open the door to further lawsuits throughout the state with regard to other school boards,” DeVito said.
The lawsuit was filed last Thursday at the Southern District of Florida.