Jacksonville Parents, Elementary Students Sue Duval County, Florida Over Illegal, Reckless Decision to Let Inadequately Trained Staff Carry Guns in Schools

Program gives guns to non-law enforcement personnel, puts vulnerable children in danger, violates Florida law

November 29, 2018 — A group of Jacksonville parents and elementary school students, along with the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed suit in Duval County, Florida challenging a school district program that will threaten students’ safety by allowing new hires with minimal training to carry guns in Jacksonville elementary schools. The plaintiffs are represented by Giffords Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Centerand pro bono counsel at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.

The school district implemented the program in an effort to comply with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (S.B. 7026). Under the challenged school district program, new school employees called “School Safety Assistants” (SSAs), who have minimal training and are not law enforcement officers, will carry concealed weapons in more than 100 Duval County elementary schools. The lawsuit alleges that the program not only puts thousands of students at risk, especially students of color and students with disabilities, but also violates Florida law that prohibits carrying guns in schools. That law exempts law enforcement officers. But SSAs are not law enforcement officers. Accordingly, it is illegal for SSAs to carry guns on school property.

Statement from Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at Giffords Law Center

“Our schools should be refuges where children learn in safe classrooms and practice reading and math, not duck and cover. After the Parkland shooting, students and parents alike demanded that the legislature take action to keep Florida schools safe, but the legislature made a mess of the school-safety legislation and failed to give Florida counties adequate resources to create safe, healthy learning environments. Duval County’s response, while perhaps well-intentioned, made a bad situation worse and created a dangerous and unlawful policy that will traumatize young children, put them at risk of injury or worse, and will fail to prevent the kind of tragic shootings that have become commonplace in America. We have proven solutions that can make our school systems safer, and no one—not parents, teachers, law enforcement officials, or experts—thinks that one answer is to allow inadequately trained individuals to roam the halls with firearms.”

Statement from Zoe Savitsky, deputy legal director, Southern Poverty Law Center

“Our public schools must be safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments for all students. Hiring employees with limited training to carry guns on elementary school campuses does not make them safer—instead, it puts children in danger. This danger is especially acute for children of color and children with disabilities, as research shows that these students’ ordinary misbehavior is more likely to be misinterpreted as dangerous. Counselors, crisis managers, and communication networks make schools safe. Armed personnel with limited training—and none on key competencies like youth development, implicit bias, and de-escalating conflict—will not make schools safe.”

The lawsuit, developed with the assistance of the Firearms Accountability Counsel Taskforce, 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 suspend the program to comply with the law. The letter explained that the individuals hired as SSAs receive substantially less training than law enforcement officers, particularly when it comes to interacting with students. These concerns are especially troubling in light of the fact that since 2014, there have been over 30 publicly-reported incidents in schools where a gun was fired or negligently handled by armed adults.

The lawsuit alleges that Duval County School Board’s policy puts the lives of thousands of students into the hands of inadequately trained personnel, and that the Board can eliminate this risk, keep Jacksonville elementary schools safe, and comply with the law by having unarmed school personnel serve a number of functions recommended by a broad consensus of educators, researchers, and law enforcement. Unarmed SSAs could, for example, develop emergency-response plans with law enforcement, create and promote comprehensive mental health services, 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.

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