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America’s New ‘Sheriff of the Year’ Pushed to Allow Teachers to Carry Weapons in School

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County, Florida, is one of the state’s most controversial lawmen.

Sheriff Bob GualtieriJoe Raedle/Getty Images

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County, Florida, was anointed Sheriff of the Year last month at the National Sheriffs’ Association conference in Kentucky. The organization’s executive director, Jonathan Thompson, said as part of the announcement: “Not only are there no limits or obstacles for him in keeping his community safe, but he has continually answered the call as a national leader on the biggest issues facing law enforcement across the country.”

The sheriff’s critics have a different take. They say it’s true that Gualtieri is weighing in on those issues, but that his policies are often wrong and show how thin the line is between making law and enforcing it. 

In July 2018, based on his interpretation of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, Gualtieri refused to arrest Michael Drejka, a 47-year-old white man, after he fatally shot Markeis McGlockton, a 28-year-old Black man, in a parking lot. He also supported controversial legislation that effectively outlawed sanctuary cities and helped create the basic ordering agreement program, which makes it easier for ICE to detain and deport people being housed in Florida’s county jails. 

But nothing has garnered Gualtieri as much attention as his strongly stated position on allowing public school employees, including teachers, to become armed “guardians” in schools, a suggestion prompted by the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. This legislation—colloquially described as one that would “arm teachers”—has been pilloried by Democrats, education experts, and many who work with youth in places where gun violence is already a fact of everyday life. The sheriff’s office declined to answer questions or make Gualtieri available for an interview for this story.

“Teachers need to teach,” said Angie Gallo, legislation chairperson of Florida’s Parent Teacher Association. “Their job is not to secure our schools. It is not to shoot at shooters.”

Sheriff Gualtieri is well-known in Florida, but most people outside the state have probably never heard of him. He was appointed sheriff of Pinellas County in 2011 when the prior sheriff stepped down, and he won the next two elections in 2012 and 2016. 

Gualtieri’s legacy will most likely be defined by tragedy and his firm belief in self-defense. After the Parkland shooting, then-Governor Rick Scott appointed him to lead the state investigation commission. About a year after the shooting, Gualtieri gave a presentation to the Florida Sheriffs Association and other law enforcement groups (as well as two appearances on the now-defunct National Rifle Association TV station), which showed in graphic detail how the shooter moved through the school building, shooting 34 people and killing 17. An over 400-page report details all of the failures that led to the carnage, including the failure of deputies to act and a slow emergency response time. 

In response to the tragedy, Florida quickly passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, which mandated armed school resource officers and created the guardian program that requires schools without armed resource officers to hire a guard with extensive firearms experience to offer security. Classroom teachers were specifically exempted from serving as armed guardians. But in its final report, Gualtieri’s commission pushed to add teachers to the program if local school boards approved. The exception was lifted in Senate Bill 7030, which passed in May 2019. 

SB 7030 faced immediate opposition from groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and from Democrats, who argued that more guns in schools could lead to more shootings and use-of-force incidents within schools. For example, Shevrin Jones, a representative for  part of Broward County, advocated along with other Democrats for implicit bias training because of the concern that Black and Latinx students might be targeted. “There are bad police officers and there are bad teachers,” he said during the debate over SB 7030.

But Gualtieri defended the program, noting that it includes 144 hours of training and does not amount to simply arming unprepared teachers. “Don’t make up your own facts and then say you disagree with it because it’s an inadequate program. It’s not,” he said at a meeting of the commission.

Yet, some school districts, including Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, have refused to join the guardian program. And state Senator Oscar Braynon, whose district includes Broward and Miami-Dade counties, said that arming teachers doesn’t make sense in city schools where students and their families already experience a great deal of gun violence daily. “A gun being in a classroom, however it is that they’re planning to do it … just the concept brings a different environment for those children,” he said.

Alongside more firearms in response to Parkland, Gualtieri has also publicly pushed for stronger protection measures in schools, like the use of walkie-talkies and changes to youth diversion programs that would require officials to track offenses and keep closer watch on potentially problematic students. Gualtieri has suggested in his presentations that students who commit more than one misdemeanor should be assessed for potential threats to the school community.

Gualtieri’s strong support of SB 7030 in the face of opposition is reminiscent of his decision not to arrest Drejka, the man who shot Markeis McGlockton. In an unusual move, Gualtieri, who also has a law degree from Stetson University in central Florida, said the state’s Stand Your Ground Law prevented his office from arresting anyone before reviewing the evidence to see if Drejka acted in self-defense. Prosecutors ultimately disagreed and charged Drejka, who filed a motion in June to call the sheriff as a witness in his defense. (The court has not yet ruled.)

Gualtieri also worked with ICE to draft the basic ordering agreement program in use in cities across Florida. The agreements circumvent the use of immigration detainers—orders that law enforcement hold people for ICE—that many, including Gualtieri, worry are legally unenforceable. Under the program, ICE pays Florida sheriffs $50 per day for each immigrant they hold. Rather than using an official contract, which has been questioned in court, the agreements resemble procurement orders, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

“Basic ordering agreements are a flawed attempt to shield local law enforcement from liability for violating the Fourth Amendment by rearresting people solely so that ICE can deport them,” said Viviana Bonilla López, law fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Gualtieri argued that more, rather than less, cooperation with ICE was needed. “We have some counties in Florida today where the county jails are not fully cooperating with ICE,” he told reporters. “They are cooperating to a point, but not fully.”

Critics say Gualtieri’s views are out of step with those of many Florida residents. By choosing Gualtieri for their award, they say, the National Sheriffs’ Association has paved the way for other sheriffs who seek to transform policy, not just by selective enforcement, but by making the laws themselves.