Friday, September 21, 2018

Parkland shooting weighs heavy on Florida education debate, influencing major school choice package HB 7055

The Florida Senate Education Committee unanimously passed the House's mega school choice package bill on Tuesday, but not before it made some major changes influenced by the Parkland shooting that left 17 people dead less than one week ago.

The shooting loomed over even seemingly unrelated issues like teachers' unions, showing that nearly every aspect of the education conversation in Tallahassee has been altered by last week's tragedy.

The committee adopted an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., D-Lauderhill, that would require schools or districts to have a program for armed officers on campus to receive training from local law enforcement to prepare for a school shooting. Shortly before the vote, several lawmakers said the amendment was superfluous because Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Majority Leader Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, are working on a more comprehensive school safety package to be unveiled Thursday.

Then, a group of about 15 Broward students, some from Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, filed into the committee room.

"In the spirit of bipartisanship and collaboration that we need to develop here pretty quick …. and in light of the fact that these young people are here form the school, I think it is the proper thing to do to go ahead and send a message," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.

Freshman Melissa Camilo, 15, said it "feels amazing" that their physical presence is making change in the Florida Capitol. Her geography teacher, Scott Beigel, was among those killed. She had just had class with him that morning.

"We're children," she said. "It's surprising to see those kids and when you actually see them, up there, up front, you can see the pain in our eyes, and they saw that something needs to be done."

The committee also squeaked through a different Thurston amendment to remove the highly controversial measure that would impose new requirements on teachers' unions to be recertified. He said the rules unfairly called out teachers because the rules would not apply to any other union.

"One of those students told me a story about one of the teachers who was trying to protect them and jumped in front of the gunmen," he said through tears. "These are the people we are targeting."

The Senate's version also contains the provisions from Sen. Kathleen Passidomo's Senate Bill 1434 that creates a comprehensive mental health program for schools to be able to offer better counseling services to students in need, as well as refer them to outside help. Many lawmakers see improving the state's mental health services as a way to help troubled teens before they turn to violence.

The Parkland shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Passidomo, a Republican from Naples, said she is expecting more funding from Galvano and Simpson's package, and will expand the program accordingly. Her initial pitch had $40 million behind it.

"One of the things we wanted to fund was for education and for basically any personnel in a school that touches a student, from a janitor to a principal, should have training to identify students that are in crisis and that way they can be directed to whomever will provide the services," she said outside the committee meeting. "There are a lot of other things that can be done with a little more money."

Finally, the Senate also stayed firm on their version of the Hope Scholarship program, requiring claims of bullying to be substantiated before a victim is offered a school voucher.

HB 7055 is next scheduled for the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, where each amendment will have to be voted on again because of special rules for House bills being heard in the Senate.

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