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Florida lawmakers finalize tweaks to school safety

For the third time since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, lawmakers are trying to bolster school safety.
In this Feb. 14, 2018, photo, students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland after a shooter opened fire on the campus. [MIKE STOCKER | AP]

TALLAHASSEE — For the third time since the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida lawmakers are on the brink of passing legislation to try to bolster school safety.

“With the second anniversary of the horrific Parkland shooting fresh on our minds, I am pleased to see key school safety legislation advance to the Senate floor,” Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said in a statement Thursday.

In preparation for the issue going to the floor, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday made several tweaks to the Senate school-safety bill (SB 7040), including removing a provision that would have allowed school districts to assign expelled students to school-based pre-arrest diversion programs.

Under current law, school districts have the option to refer students to other disciplinary programs, such as second-chance schools, during the period of their expulsion.

Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who is spearheading the bill, said the provision was removed to “alleviate concerns over unintended consequences” that could have prevented students who are not eligible for pre-arrest diversion programs from participating in other disciplinary programs.

The House version of the school-safety bill (HB 7065), sponsored by Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, also is ready for consideration by the full House.

Lawmakers rushed in 2018 to pass a school-safety measure after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They followed up with additional school-safety moves last year.

Overall, the Senate bill that received committee approval Thursday would make tweaks to school safety laws and incorporate a number of recommendations from a statewide grand jury and from the state-created Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.

The bill proposes new requirements for sheriff’s offices that use state dollars to train and arm school personnel under the school guardian program. The requirements would ensure training is only provided to eligible candidates.

Under the controversial guardian program, some trained school employees are allowed to carry firearms on campuses.

In some instances, the grand jury found that school employees completed guardian training with sheriff’s offices only to be told they would not be able to perform the duties “due to defects in their background checks, psychological evaluations, or due to the failure in some other aspects of the vetting process.”

The bill proposes a requirement for sheriff’s offices to review and approve all background results before guardian applicants can be trained, a move Diaz said will bring “cost savings” to the state.

Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who serves on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, said she was happy to see the bill require school districts to adopt plans to reunify students and employees with their families if tragedies strike.

The family reunification process after the Parkland shooting received intense scrutiny after some families waited as long as 12 hours to learn whether children or loved ones had been murdered.

“I think (a policy) will go a long way if there is ever a situation like this, or any other catastrophic event, so that parents will know where to go and kids will know where to go,” Book said during the committee meeting.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who is a former school principal and superintendent, also praised part of the bill that would diversify and expand the school safety commission.

Under the proposal, the 16-member commission would get three new appointments who would start serving in June.

All future appointments, the bill says, “must give consideration to achieving an equal balance of school district, law enforcement, and health care professional representation which reflects the cultural diversity of the state.”

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