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Lawmakers Continue Grappling With School Safety

Two children affix a bouquet of flowers to a fence. (News Service of Florida)
Two children affix a bouquet of flowers to a fence. (News Service of Florida)

Nearly two years after a six-minute shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead and 17 others injured, the issue of school security continues to gnaw at Florida lawmakers. 

The Parkland tragedy quickly spurred major legislation, including a requirement for all Florida public schools to have armed security and for school administrators to report to the state the number of disruptive or violent incidents that happen on campus or at school events.

Districts were also given the option to take part in the controversial school “guardian” program, which trains employees to carry guns in schools to defend against shootings.

But nearing the two-year anniversary of the massacre, many schools are failing to comply with safety laws, a grand jury and a state commission have found.

“Simply put, any law the Legislature writes addressing school safety, statistical reporting or harm mitigation is meaningless unless someone is given a mandate to ensure compliance,” the grand jury wrote in December.

The grand jury wants the Legislature to give the Florida Department of Education more power to investigate non-compliant districts and to allow the state agency to sanction local school officials, reprimands that could include fines or removal from office.

“We believe the mere existence of a state-level, permanent, capable investigatory agency with the power to impose a broad variety of penalties on non-compliant school districts will go a long way toward fixing the compliance issues that exist today,” the grand jury wrote.

The scathing report has put pressure on lawmakers to do more about school safety as they head into the 2020 legislative session next week.

“The Legislature will definitely be relying on the grand jury’s findings as we consider what action to take this session,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who will become House speaker in November.

However, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration continues to review the extent to which the Legislature can help enact recommendations from the grand jury, which was impaneled by the Florida Supreme Court at the request of the governor.

“This interim report includes a number of recommendations, some of which could be implemented through rulemaking, while others would require legislative action during the upcoming legislative session,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement.

If a grand jury recommendation can be carried out through the Department of Education’s rulemaking process, Ferre said, action could be taken “immediately.”

One of the recommendations that would likely need legislative approval would give the education department, headed by Commissioner Richard Corcoran, more resources to investigate whether schools are carrying out safety measures, as well as additional power to impose sanctions.

The grand jury was troubled to find instances where it alleged school administrators became “expert data manipulators” and intentionally misreported student misconduct to avoid showing an “unflattering” number of fights or other issues.

The grand jury said any attempt to obstruct the reporting of criminal activity at schools is a “crime and should be treated as such.”

“This grand jury will not hesitate to indict school officials for evidence tampering or obstruction based on their efforts to squash law enforcement investigations,” the grand jury wrote.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican who chairs the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee, said it would be tricky for the Legislature to do more on the issue about school administrators underreporting incidents.

“Yes, we need to take all (incidents) seriously, but some of them are not going to be serious threats. And who’s going to make that subjective comment? I don’t think that’s something you can legislate,” Massullo told The News Service of Florida in an interview.

However, he agreed with the grand jury that the education department should have more oversight power. School officials’ punishments, he proposed, would be based on a “sliding scale” that takes into consideration the severity and frequency of the violations.

“I think some of that should be at the discretion of the commissioner,” he said.

Senate President Bill Galvano, a lead architect of the school safety legislation passed after the February 2018 Parkland shooting, said enforcement of school security measures will likely be a focus during the session that starts Tuesday.

But he did not specifically endorse bolstering the education department’s investigative resources and sanctioning power.

“In many instances, we have perceived that there are enforcement tools out there and it’s just that they’re not being utilized,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters in December.

Galvano said he found the grand jury report “very concerning” and said it was distressing to see gaps in public schools’ long-term plans for having armed security in place.

In its report, the grand jury said some districts have cobbled together security plans that are “held together with nothing more than chewing gum, duct tape and hope.” The concerns have been echoed by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was created by the Legislature and has submitted recommendations for improving school security.

In June, the commission found nearly 200 public schools did not have full-time security officers, as required by state law. Most of those schools were charter schools. While that problem has largely been addressed, the commission said in its report that school districts were simply choosing to “disregard the law.”

“Some districts and charter schools did not like the guardian program and did not want it implemented, but they also did not want to fund the alternative of using law enforcement officers at every school to meet their legal obligation,” according to the commission’s report published in November.

Public schools --- including charter schools --- have the option to hire school resource officers, employ law enforcement officers or use school guardians or security guards to meet the mandate. The guardian program, used by 36 school districts in the state, is the cheapest option. 

The grand jury report also flagged issues with the guardian program, particularly on how vetting school personnel has led to “completely avoidable waste of resources.”

In some instances, school personnel completed state-funded guardian training with a sheriff’s office only to be told at a later time they would not be able to perform the duties “due to defects in their backgrounds, psychological evaluations, or due to their failure in some other aspects of the vetting process.”

“Not only does this waste taxpayer resources, it compromises the plans of school officials who believe they are making sufficient efforts toward compliance only to later find out that their intended designees are not eligible to serve,” the grand jury wrote.

Galvano and Massullo said they would support tweaking the guardian program’s rules to ensure vetting is completed prior to training.

In addition to the grand jury’s report, a push to require “panic button” phone apps for all school districts is gaining traction. The idea is that school employees would be able to pull out their phones and click buttons to alert police in case of emergencies.

Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who chairs the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, said he would like to set aside money to make panic buttons available statewide. He said some school districts have them already.

The issue of school safety is also expected to be lumped in with discussions about mental health services at schools, as part of efforts to identify potential school shooters.

DeSantis has asked lawmakers for $100 million to pay for more counselors, and Republican leaders have indicated they are open to increased funding for the issue.

“We need to make sure not only that our kids are secure, but that their mental health is being taken care of,” Latvala said.

For Galvano, the work is not likely to end this session.

“When we really turned up the volume in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, I told the chamber, ‘Look, we are on a journey now,’” Galvano said. “This is not a one-time, fixable problem.”

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Ana Ceballos - News Service of Florida