Florida Legislature passes bill requiring panic alarms in schools

The bill underwent unexpected controversy after companies fought over who should be eligible to receive the $8 million state contract.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, two weeks after the school shooting there, in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 28, 2018. Saul Martinez / The New York Times
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, two weeks after the school shooting there, in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 28, 2018. Saul Martinez / The New York Times
Published March 10, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature passed a bill Tuesday that requires all district and charter schools to have panic alarms in an effort to cut down the response time in case of a school shooting or other emergency.

The bill, called “Alyssa’s Law,” was taken up at the request of of Parkland parent Lori Alhadeff whose daughter, Alyssa, was killed during the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018. Radio problems and miscommunications plagued the response to the Parkland shooting, and likely delayed the arrival of help.

"When we're in a situation where there's an active shooter involved, nanoseconds count," said Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. Book is a member of the commission created after Parkland, and has closely studied the issue of school safety.

Book had said that a major goal of the bill is for schools to have devices that allow emergency personnel from different police or fire departments to be able to communicate instantly regardless of the technology they use. Language in the final version of the bill reflects that requirement.

Yet debate surrounding the bill, at times, turned unexpectedly controversial, when companies that make various panic alarm technologies openly complained that the bill was narrowly written to rig the bidding process to favor a particular company, called Mutualink.

Lawmakers called it “tacky” and “sad” that the conversation about school safety would be hijacked to be about profits.

Last week, the House added strict criteria to mandate that the company that gets the state contract would have to hold a particular certification issued by the Department of Homeland Security. Of the companies that lobbied on the bill, only Mutualink and their partner, Rave, have that certification.

The company’s lobbyist, Mike Haridopolos, who’s also a former Senate president, said that they had never sought the amendment.

But Book said that the final version bill was amended to make it less “vendor-specific” while still creating a system that has baseline standards. Now, that federal certification would not longer be required.

"Everyone thinks they're a school safety expert and everybody wants to sell technology," she said. "I've seen throughout this process districts that have spent a lot of money on systems that don't work and there are products that don't do some of the things they say they can do. And that is a dangerous thing."

Thirteen districts in Florida, including Hillsborough, have already put panic alarm systems in place. If their system does not meet the standards laid out in the bill, Book said, they will need to implement something that does. The state has set aside $8 million to cover the tab.

Alhadeff, who is now a school board member in Broward County, spent a long night on Monday waiting in the House gallery for lawmakers to pass the bill. When they finally did so with a unanimous vote at about 9:45 p.m., they credited her with making this policy come to fruition.

“While we can never bring Alyssa back ... you took unimaginable grief and turned it into action,” said Rep. Dan Daley, D-Sunrise.

After the Senate gave the bill final approval on Tuesday, Alhadeff said she was “ecstatic.”

“It’s been a roller coaster but I’m so happy to have gone through the process ... so if there is a threat on campus, a teacher can be empowered to push a button and know that help is on the way,” she said.

The bill now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature.