This bill is meant to protect Florida students. So why all the talk about profits?

Debate surrounding a bill intended to make schools safer has been overtaken by bickering vendors vying for the state contract for that service.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, chairs the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, chairs the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee. [ News Service of Florida ]
Published March 5, 2020|Updated March 5, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that requires schools to install panic alarms in case of future school shootings started out as a noncontroversial, much-hailed win for the Legislature.

Lawmakers took up a request of one Parkland parent and now-Broward School Board member, Lori Alhadeff, to create the alert in honor of her late daughter, Alyssa, who was killed in the shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The alarm would be called “Alyssa’s Alert.”

But the debate surrounding the bill has been overtaken by bickering vendors vying for the state contract for that service. Lobbyists for two different companies, Alertpoint and School Check IN, complained publicly that the bill was drafted to shut out their bids and favor a different company, Mutualink. The bid was rigged, they said, by mandating a phone app rather than manual systems or a wearable panic button, and by requiring just one vendor for the whole state.

“It’s specifically written for that solution,” said Juan Cardenal, the regional sales manager for Alertpoint who’s spoken in several committees asking that districts choose their own solution rather than the Department of Education.

C. Scott Jenkins, the lobbyist for School Check IN, said the same thing at a Feburary 26th meeting of the House Education committee.

"This bill is being written for a single vendor," he said. "The name of that vendor (is) Mutualink."

Lawmakers responded by calling it “disingenuous” and “tacky” that companies would turn this school safety measure into a fight about profit margins.

Yet an amendment recently added to the House version of the bill would help prove the complaining vendors right. It adds prerequisites so that of the four companies that lobbied on this bill, only Mutualink and Rave Mobile Safety, another company that it works with to create the panic alarm app, would be eligible to receive the $8 million contract.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, requires that eligible companies “must be certified by the United States Department of Homeland Security under the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act.” Under that law, the federal government created the certification program to prod companies to develop anti-terrorism technologies.

“We need to have a baseline of standards,” said Latvala when asked about the certification. He then added that he was confident that “multiple vendors” would qualify under the amendment.

"One of the criticisms that we've received, and frankly I think it was a disgusting criticism, was that it was written for one vendor. Which was hogwash," Latvala said. "The way that it's written now, my understanding is multiple vendors would qualify."

After the February committee meeting where the lobbyist arguments broke out, Latvala vowed to not meet with any more vendors. He also said he had only met with Mutualink twice, and once was not related to this bill.

But only Mutualink and Rave hold that certification from the feds, according to the House’s own research. Rave makes the phone app, and Mutualink created the technology for first responders and school officials to communicate even when they’re using different radio or phone systems.

The amendment was adopted on the House floor on Thursday. Latvala is the House’s Education Appropriations chairman, so he holds considerable sway in this area of policy.

Mutualink’s lobbyist, Mike Haridopolos, is a former president of the Florida Senate. He defended the company against the favoritism allegations, saying they did not ask for this amendment and they actually preferred the previous version of the bill.

“We want to be agnostic with this,” Haridopolos said. “The amendment could give the impression of favoring one company over another and we don’t want to see that happen.”

Several districts have already started implementing their own panic alarm systems, with help from state grants. One of them is Hillsborough, which is rolling out a system that uses panic buttons teachers can wear so they can alert other staff and law enforcement of an emergency and their exact location.

Chief John Newman, a retired Tampa police officer who heads the security for Hillsborough public schools, said that although the company they used for their panic alarms is not certified by the Department of Homeland Security, he's been very satisfied with it.

He praised lawmakers for pushing more districts to get panic alarms but questioned the language of this amendment.

“I like our panic alarm app. It’s awesome,” he said. “I don’t know what the upside is for the (Department of Homeland Security) certification.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the post-Parkland commission, said that in general, school safety has become a magnet for vendors because the new school requirements create a long list of opportunities for moneymaking.

While the companies are a necessary part of increasing security, he said he’s rejected countless requests from them in the past two years to appear before the commission because he feared it would become a “vendor spectacle.”

“I’ve been battling this since starting the commission. We’ve been contacted nonstop by people wanting to sell you something,” Gualtieri said. “It’s become very vendor-driven.”