The House has voted unanimously to approve this year’s measure to improve safety in Florida’s schools.
The legislation aims to strengthen mental health services in schools. In addition, the bill requires school districts and charter governing boards to assemble a plan for reunification during an emergency. School districts would need to coordinate with local governments and law enforcement agencies when formulating those reunification plans.
Republican Rep. Chip LaMarca is fronting this year’s bill (HB 7035) with Democratic Rep. Christine Hunschofsky serving as a prime co-sponsor. Hunschofsky served as Parkland Mayor during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Several members recalled the moment they heard the news and the debates held in committee meetings and on the floor.
“That was a 911 call to this state to wake up and start protecting our children in a better way shape or form and we did. We started and we continue to do it,” said Wellington Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite.
Last year’s school safety bill failed in the closing days of the 2020 Session. Now, the House is reviving the effort after the Legislature approved other major changes in both 2018 and 2019.
Lawmakers should pass a school safety bill every year, said Education and Employment Committee Chair Chris Latvala.
“It was arguably the most preventable tragedy in the most preventable mass shooting in the history of the United States,” Latvala said. “It was a failure on multiple levels of the school system, law enforcement, and so forth.”
Before taking up the bill, LaMarca asked for a moment of silence for Gina Montalto, a victim of the shooting who would have turned 18 Thursday. He recognized her family and the families of other victims who have been passionate proponents for school safety.
Despite their failure last year, lawmakers have put differences aside to pass school safety measures in the wake of the shooting.
“While politics does enter this process, at the core of it, it is about the people and our personal experiences, the time we take to hear from each other, the time we take to hear from our residents back home and bring their stories here into this chamber,” Hunschofsky said.
Under the bill, school safety officers would have to to undergo mental health crisis intervention training. Past school shooters, including the person behind the 2018 attack, exhibited several mental health problems before the attack.
This year’s comprehensive bill also adopts several suggestions from legislation filed by Democratic Rep. Dan Daley, a Coral Springs City Commissioner at the time of the shooting, requiring parents be notified of certain unlawful acts committed at a school. Those include weapon possession, acts of violence such as assault, manslaughter or homicide, and sexual offenses, among others.
Through another of his amendments, accepted Wednesday, student ID cards for students from grades six through 12 would include the numbers for national or statewide crisis and suicide hotlines and textlines.
The bill would require the Department of Education to work with the University of South Florida’s Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute to study the effectiveness and availability of mental health services. DOE would also investigate the initiation of involuntary investigations on K-12 students, including “the number of students transported from school grounds, school transportation, or school-sponsored activities to a receiving facility and the number and type of professionals…who initiate such involuntary examinations, including whether the professional is school-based or community-based.”
The Education Commissioner would have the authority to order the school board to withhold a superintendent’s salary if a school board fails to comply with reporting requirements regarding school safety.
If the bill succeeds, student codes of conduct would need to include specific criteria laying out when students who commit a criminal offense must be referred to a civil citation or pre-arrest diversion. The code must also explain when a student who commits misconduct will be assigned to a school-based intervention program.
The bill’s language considers an “active assailant” rather than an “active shooter” to cover emergencies involving weapons other than a gun.
The Senate also unanimously passed a comparable bill (SB 590) similarly addressing crisis intervention and threat notices. However, neither chamber picked up the other’s bill. The House bill was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Florida Politics reporter Ryan Nicol contributed to this report.