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School panic alarm bill raises alarm, but no panic, in House committee

No one opposes the bill’s purpose, just how it would be administered.

A bill to require statewide installation of panic alarm systems in schools received unanimous approval Wednesday from the House Education Committee though there was not unanimous praise for its details.

The committee substitute (HB 23) sponsored by Democratic Reps. Michael Gottlieb and Dan Daley was prompted by the 2018 mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and, to the extent that it would mandate a new safety measure, everyone liked it.

The systems would allow people within a school to not only send a panic alarm out to law enforcement, but also to communicate.

But arising in debate and questioning were concerns about whether the bill is clear about Gottlieb’s assurances that it would not force a one-size-fits-all solution onto school districts as varied as Miami-Dade and Lafayette counties; and whether its solutions could cost some counties, without many resources to begin with, to put up money beyond the $8 million the bill proposes allocating statewide to assist local districts.

No one on the committee or who testified Wednesday thought the intention of HB 23 is bad. Especially after hearing the pleas for the bill from Broward County School Board Member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa Alhadeff was one of the 17 people killed during the Feb. 14, 2018, Stoneman Douglas mass shooting. The proposed law, “Alyssa’s Law” is named for her.

“On Feb. 15, 2018, at Pine Trails Park, in Parkland, Florida, in front of on-air news media outlets from all around the world, I took a deep breath and screamed for change and action in school safety measures,” Alhadeff said. “Had a common sense school safety measure been in place that day, there’s a chance that Alyssa, who was in the first classroom, but especially the people on the third floor could have survived.”

An Alyssa’s Law bill already has been approved in New Jersey and is well on its way in New York and Nevada.

“Let’s be a leader and show them the way. This is a vital piece of legislation,” Adhadeff said.

Speaker after speaker, committee member after committee member, agreed.

Yet the concerns raised mean that Gottlieb and Daley may have some negotiations to consider before the bill advances any further. They agreed to do so. Yet some of the concerns raised Tuesday were pretty basic.

— Unlike the Senate counterpart, Sen. Lauren Book’s SB 70, HB 23 calls for a wifi-based app system to create a panic button network  available on mobile devices. While praised for its greater flexibility over hard-wired systems, the option raised some concerns about the use of wifi in all Florida schools, and the risks of weak signals creating zones where it might not be reliable.

— HB 23 proposes $8 million in funding, which Gottlieb said was the Department of Education’s request, based on what it expects will be needed. Some committee members, notably Rep. Susan Valdés, a Democrat from Tampa, raised concerns that the funding might be far inadequate, and small school districts might find the mandate difficult to afford.

— 13 school districts already have taken the initiative to contract for and install their own panic alarm systems. Though Gottlieb and a DOE official assured the committee they should be able to keep those systems with no penalty, some committee members sought clearer statements within the bill itself.

— The bill’s language was ambiguous enough that Gottlieb and some committee members and speakers disagreed about whether it requires the DOE to select one statewide vendor, or whether it would allow the department to approve contracts with a menu of vendors for school districts to select from. Gottlieb said it does not limit the department to one.

Committee Chair Jennifer Sullivan, a Republican from Eustis, cautioned, “your bill does specify it is a statewide system. Is that an amendment [to change that language] you could take on?”

“I’m willing to take any amendment that would strengthen this bill,” Gottlieb replied.

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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