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Florida House's Proposed School Safety Package Looks To Increase Accountability

Wilfredo Lee
AP Photo

The Florida House education committee has approved its proposed school safety package. The measure makes a number of updates, including giving the education commissioner more power to force compliance on state requirements.

“This bill basically sharpens our pencil,” said Republican Rep. Ralph Massullo presented the committee bill. “It provides a little bit better method for the districts and the individuals involved to administer school safety.”

The proposal comes two years after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission was convened to provide safety guidelines. Massullo feels the measure will help with accountability. He cited a grand jury report from December that examined districts’ response to tightened school safety measures after the deadly 2018 Parkland mass shooting.

“The grand jury recommendations are such that, while there wasn’t anything specific that we should add to legislation, the districts were having a bit of a problem implementing some of our current law,” Massullo said.

The bill looks to enforce accountability by directing the state education commissioner to withhold pay from district superintendents if they fail to comply with school safety mandates on the books – something that’s absent from the Senate’s bill.

Joy Frank, who is general counsel for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, doesn’t like that piece of the House measure.

“That causes me some angst,” Frank told the House panel. “As well as, there are so many provisions in the last two pieces of legislation – it’s very complex, it’s very detailed, we are working very diligently to make sure we are in compliance. So, I think that is unfortunate, and I would like for you to reconsider that.”

The commissioner would also require actions be taken to require charter schools to comply, if they are found to be not in compliance.

Another provision in the House measure would allow for students to be put into a civil citation or pre-arrest diversion program rather than be expelled or arrested.

An amendment clarifies that those students would be able to continue their education. Democratic Rep. Patricia Williams of Fort Lauderdale had some questions:

“On the amendment, you are stating that if a student is suspended because they brought a weapon to school, it’s up to the superintendent’s discretion whether they can continue school at another location or not?”

Massullo confirmed that is the case, provided a student goes through either a civil citation or diversion program.

“What the amendment does is provide access to education for those kids, either through an in-school suspension, either at that school or another school, through another educational opportunity such as virtual school, or some other opportunity that may be available to them,” Massullo said.

Under the bill, school safety officers would be trained on how to intervene before a crisis happens. Massullo says that applies to every type of safety officer.

“Requiring all four types of school safety officers to complete mental health crisis intervention training. And those would include the guardians, private security, school safety officers, and the school (resource) officers,” the Citrus County lawmaker said.

Angie Gallo with the Florida PTA likes that piece of the bill, and thinks it would provide a safety valve to avoid unnecessary Baker Acting of a student.

“We also appreciate the fact that you’re requiring school resource officers to do the crisis intervention training,” Gallo said. “We know that in most school districts, if not all school districts, the Baker Act is initiated by school resource officers. So we appreciate that extra step in requiring they are CIT trained.”

Gallo says the Florida PTA is pushing for a change to statutes that would require school administrators notify a parent or guardian before the Baker Act is initiated.

“There’s been too many instances and too many cases across Florida where the parent wasn’t even aware that their child was removed, and didn’t know until they picked up their child from school. I could share story after story of incidents where our children have been harmed by the Baker Act,” Gallo told lamakers.

Another piece of the committee bill requires districts to have a plan in place to reunify students with their parents if there’s an emergency situation at a school.

Something both the Florida PTA and District School Superintendents Association like? A proposed boost to mental health funding in the House budget. Massullo explained the increase:

“We’ve increased the budget for mental health in schools to $100 million from $75 (million), a 25 percent increase, at least that’s proposed in the education budget, while maintaining the school safety allocation the same.”

The senate’s plan would provide a $25 million boost to mental health spending as well. Though, the Senate is proposing a more than $40 million boost for school security.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.