TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The Florida House has passed legislation that would boost school safety plans and reinforce that the state’s top education official has the authority to withhold the salary of superintendents who fail to comply with school security rules.
The wide-ranging bill also would tweak school guardian training procedures, require school districts to create plans to reunify families in the wake of a tragedy and bolster safeguards for the arrest of students under the age of 10.
House members unanimously backed the measure, which is slightly different from the Senate’s school-safety package. With less than two weeks remaining in the 2020 legislative session, those differences will need to be ironed out between the two chambers in the coming days.
One variation in the two bills deals with the arrests of young school children.
Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, on Wednesday successfully pushed his colleagues to amend the House bill to include safeguards before students under the age of 10 can be arrested.
McGhee said the proposed change in law was prompted by the arrest of a 6-year-old girl in Orlando last September. Kaia Rolle was arrested after she had a “temper tantrum,” McGhee said. Her grandmother said her behavior was due to a lack of sleep caused by a medical condition.
“A temper tantrum is no basis for handcuffs, restraints in a police car or mugshots. Our system should not be in the business of criminalizing childhood, especially when we are dealing with 6-year-old children,” McGhee told The News Service of Florida in an interview.
Kaia and her grandmother, Meralyn Kirland, watched from the public gallery as the chamber unanimously approved McGhee’s amendment.
“Kaia, I want you to see that your cry did not go unheard. That we listened and that when you see our names on that board, that is because we are stewards of your future … and that we do not believe in criminalizing childhood tantrums,” McGhee said Wednesday on the House floor, addressing the child.
Kirland told the News Service that Kaia still has nightmares about her arrest and that she is seeing a therapist because of the incident.
“It is unimaginable, what it actually does to your family. After speaking to coworkers, friends and family members, I found out that many of them, although they are parents, they were not aware that this was possible for their child,” Kirland said.
The Senate and House are also divided on provisions that would give Florida’s education commissioner more oversight over school safety measures, with the House supporting a plan to give the commissioner more authority over safety compliance.
Under the House proposal, the commissioner “shall” require the county school board to withhold the salaries of school superintendents when the school district does not comply with school safety laws. The bill would also allow the Florida Department of Education’s inspector general to investigate non-compliance cases if the commissioner “determined that a district school board is unwilling or unable to address substantiated allegations” related to school safety.
The Senate bill does not include that language.
The House is pushing for more oversight over school safety rules after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission found last August that nearly 200 schools did not have armed resource officers as required by state law.
And the House plan also comes after a grand jury last year asked the Legislature to give the education department more power to investigate non-compliant school districts and to allow the state agency to sanction local school officials with penalties that could include fines or removal from office.
“We believe the mere existence of a state-level, permanent, capable investigatory agency with the power to impose a broad variety of penalties on non-compliant school districts will go a long way toward fixing the compliance issues that exist today,” the grand jury wrote in December.
For the most part, the two chambers are in accord on the third year of legislation in response to the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The proposals would make minor changes to school safety laws and incorporate a number of recommendations from the grand jury and the school safety commission.
Both bills propose new requirements for sheriff’s offices that use state dollars to train school personnel under the school guardian program, which allows specially trained school employees to carry guns on campuses. The legislation would ensure training is only provided to eligible candidates.
The grand jury found that, in some instances, school employees completed guardian training 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 bills would require sheriff’s offices to review and approve all background results before guardian applicants can be trained.
Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who sponsored the Senate bill (SB 7040), said last month the proposed change to the guardian program will save taxpayers money.
The Senate measure is ready for a floor vote.
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