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Senate panel signs off on school safety measure

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After nearly two years of contentious debates over school safety, a Senate panel on Tuesday approved a modest proposal that enhances existing security measures at public schools but leaves out some recommendations made by a Florida grand jury.

This year’s school safety proposal focuses on “technicalities” and recommendations made late last year by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.

The measure (SB 7040) also incorporates some of the recommendations proposed by a Florida grand jury, requested by Gov. Ron Desantis, tasked with exploring shortfalls in school safety.

Some of the proposed changes would enhance training requirements for armed school guards, align school-based diversion programs with local court diversion programs and require school districts to provide more information to the state about mental health plans.

“Unfortunately, some folks will find it very boring, which is OK by us because we know that the changes we’ll be making will have an impact on student safety,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Manny Diaz told reporters after the committee unanimously approved the measure.

The legislation, however, failed to include some of the grand jury’s recommendations, including one Diaz called “draconian.”

The grand jury -- comprised of jurors drawn from Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties -- wanted the Legislature to impose tougher penalties for school officials who failed to comply with school-safety laws passed in response to the 2018 Parkland shooting that left 17 students and faculty dead.

The grand jury report, released last month, highlighted issues such as charter schools’ failure to comply with a state requirement that schools have armed security on campuses.

Tougher penalties could have included criminal charges, withholding of state money and the removal of superintendents, administrators or school board members, the grand jury wrote.

“I think that could be perceived as just a smack to the face of superintendents,” Diaz, R-Hialeah, told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.

Diaz said he does not take non-compliance “lightly,” but said that accountability for elected officials already exists.

“I think that a superintendent that fails to meet the requirement to keep students safe … needs to be either penalized or removed,” he said. “But I think that there’s a process already in place for that.”

The proposal incorporates other grand jury recommendations, however.

For instance, the grand jury expressed concern about taxpayer resources being “wasted” on the training portion of the school guardian program, which allows specially trained teachers to carry guns at schools.

Under the guardian program, school personnel must be trained by county sheriffs’ offices. The state reimburses sheriffs for the costs of training the guardians.

But the grand jury found some school employees completed the state-funded guardian training only to later be told they could not participate in the program “due to defects in their background, psychological evaluations, or due to the failure in some other aspect of the vetting” process.

“Not only does this waste taxpayer resources, it compromises the plans of school officials who believe they are making sufficient efforts toward compliance only to later find out that their intended designees are not eligible to serve,” the report states.

Diaz said he does not know the amount of money that was used to train ineligible guardians.

However, the proposed school-safety bill could prevent potential waste of funds by requiring sheriffs to “review and approve” psychological evaluations, drug-test results and background checks of school employees before they can undergo the guardian training.

Other provisions included in the bill would make changes to school-based diversion program requirements.

The bill would require the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and the state attorney for each judicial circuit to monitor and enforce compliance with schools’ diversion programs, which serve as alternatives to arresting minors.

“This may improve the quality and accountability of such diversion programs,” according to the bill’s staff analysis.

Currently, 58 of Florida’s 67 school districts do not offer any form of pre-arrest diversion program, according to the bill analysis.

The proposal also adds more requirements for school districts to report mental health plans to the state.

Under the proposal, schools would be required to provide input on school-crisis response plans, methods used to help students with suicidal ideation, and data on the ratio of social workers and licensed mental-health professionals employed by the school.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, told The News Service of Florida she hopes lawmakers can do more to address children's mental health during the 60-day legislative session, which began last week.

“That is the biggest gap that we still see. Once we identify a child that has some challenges, are we as a state doing enough to help them?” Flores said.


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