Florida school safety bill on DeSantis desk focuses on mental health


TALLAHASSEE — As the nation reels over another inexplicable school shooting, Florida is moving forward with adjustments to its safe schools law, but the measure won’t affect state laws. on Firearms.

A day after an 18-year-old gunman entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 students and two teachers, the Florida Legislature sent HB 1421 to Governor Ron DeSantis for his pending signing. The measure, passed in the regular legislative session, attempts to improve transparency around school emergencies, tightens requirements on who can serve as a school safety officer, increases training in youth mental health and, for the first time, requires the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools to adopt a family reunification plan when K-12 public schools are unexpectedly closed or evacuated.

This is the latest update to legislation passed in 2018 by the Republican-led Legislature in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 students and education staff. and injured 17 others.

At the time, Senator Wilton Simpson, a Republican from Trilby who served as Senate Speaker for the past two years, predicted, “The focus of this legislature will be on this for many years to come.

Haunted by what they saw in Parkland, Senate leaders worked with Democrats to pass Florida’s first gun restrictions in a generation. They raised Florida’s gun ownership age from 18 to 21, banned bump stocks, imposed the state’s first ‘red flag’ law that allows law enforcement to confiscate the firearms of people considered a threat to themselves or others, gave schools the ability to arm school personnel, and created the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission .

Related: Thousands of people in Florida have had guns seized through risk protection orders since 2018

This year, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the House Education & Employment Committee, handed Rep. Fred Hawkins, a Republican from St. Cloud, a bill to implement some of the commission’s recommendations, especially those focused on how schools can best respond in an active shooter situation.

“I can’t guarantee another incident won’t happen, but if school districts put everything we’re talking about into place, it can make a difference,” Hawkins said last week. “What we are doing will save lives – but it comes down to making sure we get help for the people who need it before it happens.”

Working with Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, a Democrat who was mayor of Parkland at the time of the shooting, they persuaded their colleagues to make the first significant changes to the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act of 2018” and passed the bill which makes incremental changes to the existing law.

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Unanimous support for changes

Unlike the 2018 legislation, HB 1421 and its Senate counterpart, SB 802, received unanimous support in the House and Senate.

The measure will extend the life of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission until July 2026 to continue to assess school safety issues, monitor implementation of the law and provide oversight of the Safe Schools Office.

“There’s always more work to do,” Hunschofsky said, noting that, for example, there aren’t enough school psychologists available to meet the need for mental health assessments.

Florida Rep. Christine Hunschofsky looks on during an Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee hearing, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Tallahassee.
Florida Rep. Christine Hunschofsky looks on during an Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee hearing, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Tallahassee. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

“It’s important to keep talking to teachers, parents and principals to see what’s going on there,” she said. “There’s often crisis management, and we try to make sure we anticipate things before they happen.”

Hawkins, a former Osceola County commissioner who serves as president of the Osceola Education Foundation, said his commitment to the issue solidified for him when he met with the families of Parkland victims this year.

After meeting Tony Montalto, the president of advocacy group Stand With Parkland and whose daughter Gina was killed in the shooting, Hawkins said he promised to keep the issue focused as long as he remained at the scene. ‘Legislative Assembly.

“Tony reached out with tears in his eyes,” he recalled. “I thought he was going to shake my hand. He grabbed my hand and put a bracelet on me. He said, ‘Don’t take this off until you’ve passed this.'”

Hawkins said that during the legislative session he would see Montalto in the halls, “and I made sure to wear it every day. These bracelets are on my dresser and they remind me every day to keep moving forward and praying for these families.

But Hawkins is like most of his Republican colleagues and struggles to come up with an answer when asked what danger there is in restricting access to high-capacity firearms and ammunition or requiring universal checks on background to obtain a firearm.

“I don’t have that answer,” he said. “How many people own firearms for protection from hunting, have concealed weapons permits, and don’t use them to harm others? That’s what brings me back to someone’s mental health, and so I’ll continue to focus on making sure we’re addressing the mental health issue of the person.

Always looking for universal background checks

By contrast, Hunschofsky supports universal national background checks on gun and ammunition purchases because, she said, “only then will red flag laws be effective.” Since 2018, Florida’s “red flag” law had been used more than 3,500 times by the start of 2020, according to The Associated Press.

One of the most important pieces of this year’s legislation is the mandate that schools must create a family reunification plan in the event of an emergency, Hunschofsky said.

After the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, parents scrambled to get accurate information about their children for nearly 12 hours after the shooting “because we didn’t have a plan,” Hunschofsky recalled. “You also want to make sure that you choose a place where there is privacy, so that parents can easily get their information and pick up their children and, when parents possibly receive bad information, there is a private space. for it.”

Related: Years later, the Parkland massacre still tops school safety efforts

As information emerges from the Uvalde tragedy, Hawkins and Hunschofsky said they are acutely aware of the traumatic reminder it brings to the Parkland families.

“The communities that experience these school shootings are forever changed, and when another school shooting happens, it’s really traumatized every other community that has ever experienced school shootings,” he said. she declared.

But there are also lessons to be learned, she added, noting that Uvalde’s shooter allegedly entered the school through a door that was supposed to be locked but was not.

“It’s important to faithfully adhere to safety protocols,” Hunschofsky said. “When we say the door should be locked, there should be only one point of entry, then the doors should be locked and there should in fact be only one point of entry.”

Many districts are not in full compliance

Hawkins said a troubling development in Florida is that, despite recommendations and regulations imposed after the Parkland tragedy, “the majority of school districts were not fully compliant,” even though there is money set aside for schools to access.

“How much probation are we going to give them? he asked. “It will be a decision for the next education commissioner.”

Former state senator Manny Diaz Jr., of Hialeah, assumes the role on Wednesday, June 1.

Among the recommendations, the measure pending Governor approval would be:

  • Require the Florida Board of Education to adopt rules defining requirements for emergency drills, including timing, frequency, participation, training, notification and accommodations.
  • Require that law enforcement personnel assigned to respond to schools in batterer emergencies be physically present and participate in active batterer drills.
  • Require that school safety and environmental incident reporting data be published annually in a consistent statewide format that is easy to read and understand.
  • Require that school safety officers who are sworn law enforcement officers undergo training in mental health crisis intervention and that at least 80% of school staff receive the mandatory training youth mental health awareness.
  • Require that school security guards who are not sworn law enforcement officers receive incident response and de-escalation training.
  • Require school district and local mobile response teams to use the same Department of Education-approved suicide screening tool.
  • Require the Safe Schools Office to provide information to school districts on the proper use of the Safe Schools Awareness Program, including the consequences of knowingly submitting false information.
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