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Florida Senate focuses on failings in school security

John Kennedy
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau
Walton Sun

Following a critical grand jury report which exposed flaws in classroom security measures ordered after the massacre at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a Florida Senate panel Tuesday began trying to ease concerns raised by the findings.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to advance legislation aimed at improving school safety oversight and training while giving the state Department of Education a tougher watchdog role in making sure that districts are enacting security steps.

“Once we embarked on this road after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, we pretty much knew that every year we were going to have to go back to this subject and make tweaks,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Miami. “After we made these changes and a year goes by and some of the things that work and others needed to be tightened up… we’ve tried to advance the ball down the field and make our security laws better and tighter.”

A grand jury report last month found widespread problems with how counties were complying with provisions of the school security law approved within weeks of the attack at the Parkland high school, in which 17 students and staff were killed and another 17 wounded.

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The grand jury, ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis, concluded that many school districts still had security plans “held together with nothing more than chewing gum, duct tape and hope.”

Amid reports that 200 schools, most of them charter schools, did not have armed security on campus at the start of the 2019-2020 year, jurors cited serious potential lapses at charters, along with radio communication failures and problems with the wasteful training of school personnel to serve as guardians, who later failed either to pass background tests or psychological evaluations.

Many of the issues mentioned in the grand jury report are addressed in the bill advanced Tuesday. But the legislation provides no additional money to school districts, which have been complaining about the cost of the security measures since they were proposed in 2018.

Diaz acknowledged that more dollars may be needed.

“Our purview is the policy,” he said. “We’re going to lay out the policy that we think needs to improve. The appropriation committee… has to review these to see if there’s a cost, if there’s money that can be shifted from other things. It all depends.”

One change proposed by a Polk County university instructor, Robert Pincus, would have lawmakers require school districts to have school counselors devote at least 80 percent of their day to actual counseling.

At a time when students seeking mental health services are becoming a heightened focus of their work, Pincus said counselors are still being pulled away to assist with such routine school duties as monitoring lunch rooms, bus coordination and test proctoring.

An 80 percent rule “gives school counselors power to say to the principals that I’m here for the students,” Pincus said.