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School officials, teachers, students tell Bill Nelson money is needed

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson got an earful Wednesday from school leaders, teachers, security officers, students, and parents in Orlando, all saying that they need help making schools safer — and for the most part, they need money.

In a roomful of educators and students who appeared to mostly share his Democratic views, Nelson was told the mental health concerns are more than just a problem with isolated troubled students, that teachers do not want to be armed, and that their real concern was eliminating the firepower that school shooters can obtain with assault weapons.

But for most of the school issues, the plea was for more funding. The audience appeared concerned that the package just provided by the Florida Legislature does not provide enough to cover the school safety and mental health counseling program mandates, that the increase in disposable money amounts to 47 cents per student, and that federal money is similarly slim.

“We passed legislation that will bring more federal funding for safer schools. But the end of the day isn’t it the problem of an assault rifle, and the purchasing of that rifle by someone who shouldn’t be getting it? That seems to be the problem,” Nelson concluded afterwards. “So it was a first step done by the Congress, but a tiny first step.”

The issues of school safety, public schools quality, and state and federal funding all mixed together in comments and questions Wednesday. Orange County School Board Member Nancy Robbinson, teachers including former state Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, who is herself running for the school board this year and Democratic state Rep. Kamia Brown of Orlando, who sits on the Florida House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, all expressed less satisfaction with what is coming than concern for needs they are convinced are still are unmet.

That sentiment was echoed by principals, teachers, students and others.

Mental health counseling is getting new funding in schools, but students and teachers told Nelson they felt the situation is darker than just concerns over someone here or there who was a threat of imminent violence.

Kim Wilkes, a teacher at Winter Park High School, said mental health counseling programs are overwhelmed.

“We have it, and we still have a need that’s greater than the service can provide,” she said.

Catherine Cannon, a teacher at Ocoee High School, said she’s spoken to students a lot about the concerns in the past few weeks since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre of Feb. 14. “What they keep repeating to me constantly is there is no emphasis on their social and emotional development. It’s all about their academic performance, and they are incredibly stressed out about it.”

If there were two issues that seemed to get widespread agreement, it was concern over the availability of assault weapons, and opposition to the arming of teachers. Nelson heard that from the school boards, from Capt. Rick Francis of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, who serves as a security officer, and from the administrators, teachers, and students.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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