Florida lawmakers revisit post-Parkland school safety, student mental health

But this year’s bill may provoke fewer fireworks than the bitter debates seen in the past two sessions.
In this Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)
In this Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File) [ MIKE STOCKER | AP ]
Published Jan. 21, 2020|Updated Jan. 21, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — For the third time since the 2018 Parkland shooting, the Florida Legislature is taking up school safety, proposing tweaks in laws relating to armed security, mental health services and district oversight.

But this time, school safety might not prompt the tornado of emotional debate, pain and controversy of years past, when lawmakers were particularly torn over whether teachers should be allowed to be armed. This year’s proposal, Senate Bill 7040, passed unanimously through the Senate Education committee Tuesday, after mild questions and discussion by lawmakers.

“There’s no gun issue in there," said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs the committee. "I think unfortunately some folks will find it pretty boring, which is OK by us because we know the changes we’re making are going to have an impact on student safety.”

The 39-page bill incorporates some recommendations from a statewide grand jury convened to investigate compliance with school safety laws, as well as the post-Parkland commission, which studied the shooting for months before recommending fixes.

The bill proposes that all training for teachers or other school staff who volunteer to be armed on campus would be offered or directly overseen by a sheriff’s office. That’s a response to what happened in Palm Beach County. The school district contracted with a private security company to train the security guards for their charter schools, but Sheriff Ric Bradshaw found their training was woefully inadequate. The district has sued the company to get its money back.

Some of the most significant changes are those limiting how a 48-year-old state law, the Baker Act, is used in public schools. Amid rising fears of mass shootings, school officials are increasingly relying on the Baker Act to commit young people who fall into depression or attempt suicide.

RELATED: Florida’s flawed Baker Act rips thousands of kids from school

The bill would require police working in schools to complete mental health crisis intervention training that teaches “deescalation skills” and prepares them to work with “students with disturbance or mental illness.” The legislation also proposes requiring school boards to write and adopt policy that explicitly states how mental health professionals would be involved in the Baker Act process, which many are left out of now.

School districts would be required to report to the state the number and ratio to students of licensed mental health workers they employ, plus try to recognize and help students who may be suicidal.

The bill addresses another point of frustration surrounding the Baker Act in schools: parental notification. It would require school boards to adopt formal guidelines on when parents and guardians are notified when the Baker Act is used on their child.

But when it comes to mental health, Robert Pincus, a former high school counselor who spoke on behalf of the Florida School Counselor Association, said school counselors need to be freed of their extra duties such as lunch duty, bus duty and testing coordination so they can offer at least 80 percent of their time speaking with students.

“I have been asked to be the photo guy for photo day. I have been asked to substitute teach,” he said. “We need some type of bill ... that gives the school counselors the ability to say to school principals, ‘I’m here for our students.’”

Lawmakers said they would take these concerns into consideration. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he strongly agreed, but that schools would need additional funding to be able to fill in any gaps.

“We have far, far more mental health issues in our schools ... and this bill goes a long way in addressing that," he said. “(But) if we expect schools to play a far greater role in addressing mental health we have got to recognize that there is a fiscal cost.”

This year’s school safety bill is also noteworthy for what it does not include. Several of the grand jury’s most contested recommendations, such as allowing the Florida Department of Education to remove superintendents, administrators and school board members from office for noncompliance, are not in it. The grand jury, which accused districts of becoming “experts at data manipulation,” had said such intervention was necessary to fix what it described as districts’ blatant disregard for the law.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the Times/Herald that doesn’t mean those recommendations have been discarded, but this bill focused mostly on the suggestions of the post-Parkland commission.

“That doesn’t mean, as it proceeds through the process, we won’t pick up some of the grand jury recommendations," he said.

Yet on Tuesday, Diaz said it was unlikely the piece about removing local officials would be added, since there already is a process in place for them to be removed locally.

“It seems like we’ve just been pounding on superintendents,” he said. “The vast majority of our superintendents are trying to do the right thing ... it think that could be perceived as a smack in the face.”

This bill would also add three members to the post-Parkland commission, who would be either superintendents, principals or teachers — perhaps another acknowledgement that districts should be better involved in security discussions.

Also on Tuesday, a separate school safety bill that would require public schools to have panic alarms to immediately call local law enforcement passed unanimously through the House PreK-12 Innovation committee.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.