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How a Republican teacher groomed Parkland teens for the fight of their lives

MIAMI — Jeff Foster doesn’t think Marco Rubio is a “child murderer.” And he doesn’t think a ban on assault weapons is likely to pass. Unlike many of the students he advises, the Advanced Placement government teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sees “merit” in arming faculty members and tightening gun laws.

Foster, who is far from the liberal teacher stereotype, has been credited nonetheless for grooming students like Emma Gonzalez, Delaney Tarr and David Hogg for their new roles as teenage activists leading a nationwide push for stricter gun laws.

A longtime Republican — but also a Hillary Clinton voter whose views are “almost Libertarian to a degree” — Foster admits he catches himself wincing at some of the more inflammatory rhetoric his students and other members of the #NeverAgain movement have unleashed, especially when they attack the right. But he admires their passion and how quickly and effectively they’ve mobilized.

“When it gets a little extreme … I cringe a little at times,” Foster said. “I think their hearts are in the right place.”

Since last month’s mass shooting at the Parkland school, student leaders have rekindled the debate on guns in America. Through television interviews and an unrelenting social media blitz, they’ve used their emerging platforms to bash the National Rifle Association, President Donald Trump and GOP lawmakers.

Several of them got much of their information from Foster’s class, the only Advanced Placement Government course taught at the school and, with more than 270 kids enrolled, one of the largest in the state. Foster, a 46-year-old Florida State University graduate, has been teaching the seniors-only course since 2001, after stints coaching basketball and teaching geography and American history.

Over the past semester, he’s been teaching his students, including Gonzalez, Tarr and Hogg, about the tenets of government, about interest groups like the NRA and how these interest groups influence policy. He organized debates and group projects around the topic.

But when Foster, who calls himself a fiscal conservative with socially liberal views, prompted his students to argue both sides of gun control, he never thought they’d be using his teachings in public debates with NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch or speaking one-on-one with legislators in Washington, D.C.

“My mantra usually is, ‘If you don’t participate, you can’t complain about things,'” he said. “I tell them in order to make a difference in the country, you need to participate. Unfortunately we had this event happen, and now it’s in live action.”

Gonzalez, whose speech outside the Broward County federal courthouse three days after the shooting has been viewed millions of times on the internet, has credited Foster for giving her the knowledge she needed to make that speech (although Foster wishes he’d come up with her call-and-response “We call B.S.” chant).

“I know this looks like a lot, but these are my AP Gov notes,” Gonzalez told the crowd of thousands as she held up a stack of loose-leaf paper and wiped tears from her eyes.

A few days later, during a CNN town hall meeting televised nationally, Gonzalez locked eyes with Foster, who was sitting in the crowd, and thanked him for “teaching us everything we learned.”

“I could not have written that speech without you,” Gonzalez said, before telling NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch that her generation would do a better job defending her children than Loesch could.

Foster smiled. His phone started to buzz with calls from admirers for the next 20 minutes. It was a proud moment, he said, but he was just doing his job.

His steady hand and bipartisan mindset has made him a go-to lifeline for a handful of students and parents who’ve called him before speaking with legislators or going on TV. He doesn’t instruct them on what to say, Foster says, just how to say it.

“They need to be careful about this,” Foster told The Miami Herald. “You can’t tell somebody to f — — themselves,” he added, and expect a warm welcome to the negotiation table.

Foster says there have been times when he felt the need to pull some students aside to advise them to “tone down” some of the rhetoric.

Hogg, 17, who brought his call for action to TV sets across the country within hours of the Valentine’s Day shooting, said Foster’s bipartisan approach hasn’t persuaded him to soften his stance.

In the past three weeks, Hogg has used his Twitter account to publicly shame U.S. lawmakers he says are complicit in the death of his classmates, the gun lobby that contributes to their campaigns and any company that continues doing business with the NRA.

“I’m not gonna turn down my rhetoric, because they’re allowing my friends to be killed,” Hogg told the Herald.

After the Florida Legislature passed a guns and school safety bill on Wednesday night — the state’s first gun restrictions in three decades — Foster sent a text message to a group chat he started with some of his students, congratulating them on their “good work” helping spur lawmakers into action.

“Don’t sell yourself short foster, you’re the one that taught us about government. We just kicked them into action,” Lewis Mizen, a 17-year-old senior, texted back.

Foster says he doesn’t always agree with his students, but he shares their commitment to stop gun violence. He drove a group of six teens to Tallahassee to lobby legislators in late February. On Feb. 28, when classes resumed, he donned his #MSDStrong shirt and snapped selfies with Hogg and Gonzalez. He received hugs from others. As the school’s unofficial liaison, he’s been attending meetings with kids and their parents about traveling to Washington, D.C., for a march on March 24.

Jason Friedlander, a social studies teacher at the high school, said Foster is a “really energetic guy” who somehow deals with 150 students a day and delivers in-depth lectures on his material.

“It’s not just memorization of the topics, but it’s the skill to think critically about the topics as well,” Friedlander said.

On Valentine’s Day, before former student Nikolas Cruz walked into the school’s freshman building and opened fire in hallways and through classroom windows, Foster was teaching his class about special interests and the lobbying arms that tip the scales in Washington and Tallahassee.

“Instead of worrying about our AP Gov chapter 16 test, we have to be studying our notes to make sure that our arguments based on politics and political history are watertight,” Gonzalez said during her Feb. 17 speech outside the Broward County Courthouse. “The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives. AP Gov had about three debates this year.”

Foster is quick to say he isn’t seeking any recognition for what has been his job for the past two decades. He said that without the determination of the student activists, many of whom — like #NeverAgain organizer Cameron Kasky — have not taken his class yet because they aren’t seniors, legislation wouldn’t be moving through the state capital like it is.

During class on Tuesday, Foster’s students asked him to turn on the televised debate of the school safety and guns bill in the state House of Representatives.

They were working on mock AP gov exams in groups, but many students were distracted by the debate. Foster says that about 15-20 students expressed a desire to attend college in Tallahassee or Washington D.C., and in either majoring in political science or tacking on a poli-sci minor to their preferred major.

Outside the school on Thursday, besides an ever-growing memorial for the dead, Foster was reminded of his students’ willingness to demand political change even as they grieved.

“I’ve been teaching this class for almost 20 years now,” Foster said. “I’ve had some great students over the years, but this is a pretty unreal combination of kids.”