BY ANA CEBALLOS
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – In search of a solution that will prevent another school massacre, a sharply divided Florida Senate on Tuesday passed a wide-ranging school safety bill that includes a controversial provision aimed at adding armed teachers to the line of defense.
The Senate passed the bill on a 22-17 vote, with Democrats and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, opposed to the legislation’s expansion of the school “guardian” program to allow armed classroom teachers. The program was created last year and has allowed other school staff members to be armed if districts approve.
The measure (SB 7030) includes recommendations made by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was formed by the Legislature last year after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members at the Parkland school.
Some of those recommendations include strengthening mental-health services at schools across the state and improving communication between schools and law enforcement by enhancing districts’ requirements to report incidents that pose threats on school premises or at off-campus school-sponsored events.
“This legislation continues our efforts to proactively enhance coordination between education, law enforcement, and community mental-health resources to ensure at-risk students receive the help they need before a tragedy occurs,” Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said in a statement after the vote.
GUARDIAN PROGRAM DEBATE
While the Senate universally agreed those provisions of the bill were
important, most of the debate Tuesday focused on the expansion of the guardian program.
Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who sponsored the bill, argued the guardian program is voluntary for local school districts, and that if they do opt in, guardians go through psychological evaluations, background screenings and training on how to handle active shooter situations.
“I am very fearful about changing the program this year,” Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said. “I worry about the logistics of this program, do the teachers carry the gun on their person? What happens in recess? Will children be able to get it?”
Throughout the legislative process, Democrats tried to amend the bill to keep classroom teachers from participating in the guardian program and to give parents the option to pull their children from classes taught by armed teachers.
“The parent’s rights are not being considered in this bill,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, said.
Taddeo’s proposal to give parents the choice to keep their children away from armed teachers proved tricky because guardians’ identities are meant to be kept secret.
PARKLAND SUICIDES DISCUSSED
While debating the bill, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, meticulously went over the details of the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and officials’ response to it, including how during the shooting, former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson did not enter the building.
“I will remind you that the shooting lasted 3 minutes and 43 seconds from first to last shot,” Book said.
As senators pondered how quickly lives were lost during the Parkland shooting, they also discussed how a year later, two student survivors died of suicides.
Sen. Kathleen Passidomo praised efforts in the bill to improve mental health services in schools. Last year, the Legislature gave school districts $69 million to address mental health, something Passidomo said is a “drop in the bucket.”
This year, the Senate has proposed a total of $100 million for mental health funding. Passidomo also worked to amend the bill to aid students in crisis, particularly those with suicidal tendencies and who are bullied, a provision she said was needed to help potential shooters.
“We want these students to be identified so they do not become monsters,” Passidomo, R-Naples, said.
A similar House bill (HB 7093) has moved through committees but has not come up on the House floor for a vote.