The Senate Education Committee is advancing a new committee bill (SPB 7040) seeking to strengthen school safety measures during the 2020 Legislative Session.
The Legislature has acted in each of the past two sessions to do the same following the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School.
In Feb. 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a grand jury to be impaneled in order to assess whether schools are complying with those legal requirements.
That grand jury released a December report criticizing the implementation of school safety measures.
That interim report — the second so far — found several different gaps in school safety readiness in districts throughout the state.
For example, the state’s Guardian program allows individuals to be trained to protect schools in the event a school does not have the ability to contract with a police officer. That program was set up in 2018 under the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (SB 7026).
But the grand jury found that program was wasting valuable resources by training ineligible individuals. The measure approved by the Senate Education Committee Tuesday would include a provision requiring a sheriff’s office to review and approve an applicant’s psychological and drug tests to ensure they are eligible to perform as a guardian.
That review must take place before the applicant can participate in the training.
The legislation also gives the state more authority to review school safety incident reporting by school districts. The Office of State Schools would review those reports and notify the Education Commissioner of “all incidents of material noncompliance.”
Those incidents can result in withholding pay from a school administrator until the reporting requirements are met.
That follows recommendations by the grand jury to up the penalties for a school district’s noncompliance.
The Senate legislation would attempt to install recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission (MSD Commission) which was set up following the 2018 shooting.
For instance, it would beef up training requirements for dealing with mental health issues. The measure would install a new mental health work group within the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida.
That group will “review, evaluate, and provide implementation guidance on the mental health-related findings and recommendations of the” MSD Commission and provide legislative recommendations by Aug. 1, 2020.
In addition, SPB 7040 will mandate that school safety officers “complete mental health crisis intervention training using a curriculum developed by a national organization with expertise in mental health crisis intervention. The training must improve officers’ knowledge and skills as first responders to incidents involving students with emotional disturbance or mental illness, including de-escalation skills to ensure student and officer safety.”
“This is a great step forward,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, who sits on the Education Committee.
“I have felt for some time that we are on a long journey of learning more each year how to be more effective with school safety issues and school safety concerns and the mental health concerns. All of those are heavily addressed in this approach.”
Sen. Bill Montford, another committee member, echoed Baxley’s praise but also cautioned the Senate to continue to fund those mental health provisions going forward.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, for the last three years, the number one concern among school superintendents in Florida has not been testing or the budget. It’s been mental health. And this committee and this bill will go a long way in addressing that very issue,” Montford said.
“We have far, far more mental health issues showing up in schools not only among students, but the parents as well. So I think this bill goes a long ways in addressing that. But I think we’ve got to be realistic and say if we’re going to expect schools to take on a far greater role in addressing mental health, then we’ve got to recognize that there’s a fiscal role to this as well.”
The legislation will also add three new members to the MSD Commission to represent educational interests. Those members will each either be a superintendent, principal or classroom teacher within the state.
The Senate measure would attempt to improve emergency response within individual schools. SPB 7040 requires the state to consult with local parties to set up minimum requirements for emergency drills, which are to be carried out annually.
School boards would also be required to set up a family reunification policy in the event of an emergency.