This Powerful Commission Is Shaping School Safety Policies In Florida
In the more than 20 months since the deadly shooting in Parkland, the state has passed a number of laws to address school safety, including the controversial measure allowing teachers to be armed.
Much of that legislation came out of an initial report published by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission earlier this year.
Last week, the commission published a second report for lawmakers to consider in 2020. It's up to legislators to decide if they will once again make the recommendations state law but the expectation is that they will.
In fact, the work of this group will continue to impact all school-age children in Florida for years to come, as the MSD Public Safety commission has a mandate to meet until July 1, 2023.
The Commission's Impact So Far
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission was created by the Florida legislature less than a month after the Parkland shooting on March 9, 2018.
The commission was given the power by Senate Bill 7026 to identify what went wrong in Parkland, what's not safe in Florida's public schools overall, and then recommend ways to fix those things.
"The commission shall investigate system failures in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and prior mass violence incidents in this state and develop recommendations for system improvements." - Senate Bill 7026
"It was to investigate and point out the failures, which we did," Ryan Petty said of the commission's scope. Petty lost his 14-year old daughter, Alaina, in the shooting and sits on the panel. He spoke to WLRN last month.
"We don't want this to happen to any other families — across the country, in the State of Florida, and certainly in Broward County," he said.
That power given to the commission is impacting every school-age child in Florida.
"Nobody's under any illusion that it's perfect, but we're in a better state, and a safer state today than we were 20 months ago and there's a lot of work yet to be done but it is moving in the right direction," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a commission meeting last month.
As chair, Gualtieri is one of the most vocal members of the commission.
"We know change is hard, in many cases it’s controversial, and in some cases it's resisted…" Gualtieri said about the commission's first report last December. "But it's necessary if we're going to do better and ensure that every kid who goes to school in the morning, comes home at night."
That first report was published on Jan. 2, 2019. It recommended that schools be required to have an active assailant response plan, and that legislators change how schools are staffed with armed security.
One of the most controversial initiatives was to allow classroom teachers to join the Guardian Program — and carry a gun on campus.
Governor Ron DeSantis supported the measure.
"You have somebody that really wants to do harm, if they think they're gonna meet resistance they're much less likely to choose a school. So I want our schools to be off limits. I don’t want people to think it’s a soft target," he said in May.
The Florida Legislature turned those and other recommendations from the commission's report — including changing how schools report incidents that pose threats — into law with Senate Bill 7030.
The bill passed in the Senate at the end of April with 22 yeas and 17 nays. It was signed by the governor on May 8, 2019, a little over four months after the first report was first published by the commission.
This process of a report becoming full on state law is happening again: The committee’s second report was published last week and the legislature will be back in Tallahassee in January, where they will again consider making the comission's recommendations new state law this coming Spring.
Yet, the extent of power of the MSD Public Safety Commission has its critics.
In a report issued last October, the Southern Poverty Law Center outlined several concerns about the commission lacking diversity, and how that is leading to recommendations that might harm some students.
For example, it highlights that makeup of the commission was determined by a group of former state leaders, all Republicans. The 16 members have backgrounds in education, mental health and some parents of victims in Parkland. More than a third of the commission members are current or former law enforcement.
Yet, "It does not include students, it does not include current on-the-ground educators, it does not include a sufficient number of mental health professionals, it does not include any voting members who are people of color, or advocates for students with disabilities…" Bacardi Jackson, Managing Attorney for the Miami Office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told commissioners last month during public comment.
This lack of representation doesn't make Florida schools safer for all students, said Jackson.
"For example, in your lengthy discussion today of diversion programs, there was nothing at all said about the inherent racial and ability bias that is currently embedded in school discipline," Jackson said.
Numerous studies, including findings from the U.S. Dept. of Education's Office For Civil Rights and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, have found black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined in school, compared to their peers.
The Aspen Institute, a national think tank, also released a report criticizing some of the commission's recommendations, particularly around collecting student data. The report said "preventing school shootings through data is fraught with ethical and technical risks ..." The authors see the potential for bias in any algorothms making predictions.
The Second Report
In its newest report the commission has number of new directives, including:
- Making sure agencies create specific policies for notifying victims families after a mass casualty.
- Reducing the number of active shooter drills.
- And finding a way to increase funding for mental health screening and treatment.
The specifics of how any of these would be implemented is still up to the legislature, which so far has been receptive to the commission's suggestions.
The commission will continue to meet, and make recommendations to lawmakers, until 2023.
"So we'll keep this movin, get this report, work with the legislature and find the best appropriate time to come back together next year," Gualtieri said.
That will likely be after the 2020 legislative session.