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Parents sue Duval County (Fla.) district over arming school guards

The Jacksonville-based district plans to hire and arm safety assistants to patrol elementary schools, but parents say the move will put their children in harm's way.

A group of parents is suing Duval County (Fla.) Public Schools to stop the district from arming its new “school safety assistants.”

The Florida Times-Union reports that Duval Schools created the armed safety assistant program because the district can’t afford to have school police officers at every school, as required by a new state law.

The parents, backed by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Southern Poverty Law Center and two law firms doing pro bono work, contend in the lawsuit that the district's effort will endanger students rather than make them safer.

“All of us are concerned about our schools being safe, welcoming and inclusive learning environments,” says Adam Skaggs, a lawyer at the Giffords Law Center in New York.

“We believe the presence of inadequately trained security personnel carrying concealed weapons in elementary schools is not only unlawful, but is dangerous and will subject our clients and tens of thousands of Duval County school children to the possibility of injury.”

The school district has been trying to recruit, train and equip more than 100 school safety assistants, who for $12.50 an hour will patrol most elementary school campuses. Duval also placed school police officers at its middle and high schools.

The League of Women Voters of Florida, a co-plaintiff in the litigation and a longtime opponent of firearms in or near schools, called the district’s reliance on safety assistants “misguided and absurd."

Skaggs asserts that the district is misinterpreting the state’s school safety law. He says the law allows for school guardians, but it doesn’t create an exemption for them to carry weapons onto school campuses.

Proponents of the law have in recent months disagreed with that position, arguing that the new state law makes it clear that school guardians must be armed and on each school campus if that campus is not already guarded by a sworn law officer.

Skaggs says the parents he represents fear that minority students and those with disabilities or behavior problems, who already are disproportionately disciplined by schools, could become targets for extra scrutiny by the safety assistants.

Duval officials have said the safety assistants will receive more training than armed security guards currently receive. The assistants also will spend much of their time securing and patrolling school perimeters rather than interacting with students.

Most board members said earlier this year hat if enough money were available, they would have preferred hiring a police officer for each school. But that would have cost Duval about $10 million, and the state provided only about $3.6 million.

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