More than three years after the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, local and state officials from Broward County say more needs to be done to keep Florida’s school children safe.
The Legislature has passed multiple pieces of safety legislation since the 2018 attack, which killed 17 people and injured 17 more. But at a joint meeting Wednesday between the Broward County legislative delegation and Broward County School Board, officials said funding and recruitment gaps remain, and existing safety measures are not being fully implemented.
A law passed after the 2018 Parkland shooting requires Florida’s schools to have at least one safety officer on each campus. But Broward officials say fully funding that effort remains a challenge, and several disagree on who should oversee those officers and who should be eligible to serve.
Local officials have pushed for additional funding for school safety officers before. John Sullivan, director of legislative affairs for Broward County Public Schools, repeated those calls Wednesday by asking lawmakers to increase the millage rate school districts may levy in order to increase funding for school resource officers.
“Right now, we’re very fortunate most of our cities partner with us,” Sullivan said as he made the pitch for more state help. “This would allow some of that financial burden on the cities to be replaced with those revenue dollars.”
Currently, state law caps millage rates even if local residents would approve an increase. In the past, the district has said a half mill increase could generate as much as $100 million.
The school district is also asking the Legislature to increase funding for safe school officers and to boost funding and expand training for the Guardian program. That program has been decried by some, as it allows private individuals to undergo 144 hours of training in order to protect a school, including with a firearm.
Some law enforcement officers have said the program is necessary, as some law enforcement agencies don’t have enough personnel to provide manpower at every school. But Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Joe Geller called the program “very misguided” and openly disagreed with calls from the Broward School Board to expand the program and push for more funding.
“It’s not the right approach. No one should have firearms at school sites except certified law enforcement officers,” Geller said.
“I don’t want to see it funded and I don’t want to see it expanded. I want to see it ended.”
Officials also discussed which agencies should be in charge of staffing schools with school resource officers. Democratic Rep. Patricia Williams floated giving more — if not all — control to the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO).
Sullivan, the district’s legislative director, said that would pose problems.
“That would be somewhat complicated because BSO currently doesn’t serve all of the municipalities in Broward,” he explained.
Sullivan said the district has different agreements with different law enforcement agencies, depending on which agency — BSO or a separate municipal police force — serves a given municipality. But Williams expressed concern the existing safety system isn’t working.
“When we have schools that only have two SRO’s and are not able to control the crowd when fights break out, I’m concerned about safety,” she said.
The district’s request for more funding is mainly focused on a desire to relieve cities of some of the costs for SRO’s. The district has not expressed an urgent need to hire additional officers in schools, but a funding increase would allow schools to utilize more SRO’s and rely on fewer individuals trained under the Guardian program.
For the 2021-22 school year, Broward County showed $12.8 million in Florida Education Finance Program cash available for school safety officers in district-managed schools. But the district spent $13.2 million on officers, including just over 40 guardians. SRO’s are typically more expensive than guardians, meaning the state would need to more than cover that $400,000 gap in order to allow Broward to transition to more SRO’s.
Later in the meeting, Democratic Rep. Robin Bartleman pushed back on Williams’ idea that BSO could be fully responsible for providing officers in schools. She said the current system, where officers from local agencies serve nearby schools, allows for bonds to be formed between police and their communities.
“There are many municipalities in this county who would flip out if we took away their ability to have community policing,” Bartleman said.
“The idea of an SRO is not to be there to arrest children, but to keep them safe and form community relationships. So what happens is, they see the same kids in the school that they see in the street, that they see in the park, that they see everywhere else. And there are some municipalities in this county that do an amazing job with community policing.”
Sullivan also noted the school district is asking for more funding in the upcoming Session for mental health resources, which can aid a student who may be at-risk for violent behavior. Democratic Rep. Michael Gottlieb, who chairs the Broward legislative delegation, asked Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright what else lawmakers could do to support mental health assistance for students.
“We need help in recruiting individuals as well because they’re just not there right now,” Cartwright told Gottlieb.
“I’m not sure, from a policy perspective, what that would potentially look like. But to answer the question, that is probably one of our neediest areas: not only to pay them, but also to find them.”
Lawmakers and Broward School Board members also discussed the Alyssa’s Alert app, which was approved by lawmakers in 2020. A companion app launched earlier this week, allowing teachers to directly contact law enforcement personnel in an emergency situation.
But the school district — which oversees Parkland, the site of the 2018 mass shooting — has struggled so far to get its personnel to download the app, with fewer than 20% of employees signed up as of late September.
Cartwright said the district is working hard to boost those numbers.
“We are currently underway, and in an aggressive manner, promoting the app with all of our employees,” Cartwright said, noting a partnership with the Broward Teachers Union, led by Anne Fusco.
“President Fusco was with us yesterday in this release in promoting it and letting teachers know it’s okay. We need you to download this,” Cartwright said.
School Board Member Lori Alhadeff, who lost her daughter in the 2018 attack, also attempted to dispel concerns the app could be invasive.
“Once the teachers leave the campus, it’s not tracking them. It doesn’t even work once it’s off campus,” Alhadeff said.
Republican Rep. Chip LaMarca was one of those who showed support for the app, but not before discussing some disappointment during Wednesday’s meeting.
“We did a lot of hard work to make sure that we try to keep our kids safe. And that’s disheartening to find out that it’s not being embraced,” LaMarca said.
It’s unclear what legislation will move forward this upcoming Session regarding school safety. Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book said Wednesday that lawmakers should be prepared to continue working on this issue, despite lawmakers already approving multiple major bills following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.
“It’s not a one-and-done,” Book said. “It’s going to continue for the rest of our lives and the rest of our time here, and I think it’s one of the greatest pieces of service that we can do as public servants.”