Authorities with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office arrested Starkey Elementary School fourth grade teacher, Betty Jo Soto, Monday morning when a loaded gun and two knives were discovered in her backpack.
Pinellas school district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf-Chason told The Tampa Bay Times that Starkey Principal Audrey Chaffin contacted law enforcement after noticing Soto suspiciously kept the bag on hand throughout the morning. Officers discovered a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol loaded with seven bullets and a two-inch finger push knife in the bag, as well as a six-inch knife in Soto’s pocket during their search.
Soto has a Florida permit to carry a concealed weapon, according to the police report, but such permits do not extend onto school property. Soto, 49, was fired effective immediately and charged with two misdemeanor counts of carrying a concealed weapon as a result of the incident. She was released from custody later in the day after posting a $500 bail, according to The Times report.
Soto’s motives for bringing the weapons to school are unclear at this time. A spokesperson for Pinellas County School district told The Times that, after three years with the district, they had decided not to renew Soto’s contract for the following year. It is unknown whether Soto was aware that her contract was not being renewed before her arrest.
WFLA reported Soto was angry and unwilling to give a reason for why she brought the weapons to school, eventually stating: "Ask DeSantis. Ask your governor."
Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a controversial bill that will increase the number of teachers able to carry concealed weapons on school campuses. This new bill builds upon the school “guardian” program established after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Under the original program, teachers must have approval from the school district, accrue a minimum of 144 hours of police-style training, undergo psychiatric evaluation and drug screening, as well as serve in some capacity outside of the traditional classroom like coaching.
The new bill, which takes effect October 1, will extend the ability to carry a concealed weapon to all teachers who meet the above requirements, regardless of whether or not they serve an additional role outside of the classroom.
When the bill was signed, both Pinellas and Hillsborough County Schools released formal statements informing the public that they will not be arming their teachers.