FLORIDA — The harrowing school shooting in Nashville that left three nine-year-old children and three adults dead has schools across Florida on high alert. So what is being done in the state to help prevent future tragedies?
Florida has been through this. As Floridians join those in Tennessee mourning the loss of innocent lives, security is a top priority as students finish the last quarter of the school year.
“PUT OBSTACLES IN THE WAY”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, said school shootings are impossible to prevent.
“You’re never going to prevent it,” he told reporters at a press conference last year. “But what you can do is put some speed bumps in the way, you put obstacles in the way, and you can try and identify as quickly as possible people that are on what’s called a pathway to violence and derail them from that pathway.”
State Rep. Christine Hunschofsky (D-Parkland) was mayor of Parkland in 2018 during the school shooting that took the lives of 17 people. Hunschofsky worked closely with Republican legislators to address gaps in school safety across the state, telling worried parents to stay involved in their child’s school and remain vigilant.
“It’s about all of us looking out for each other in this process,” Hunschofsky said in House testimony.
After the massacre and botched police response at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, lawmakers approved hundreds of millions in funding for school safety officers. They also augmented the state’s mental health system and included gun control measures that Republicans supported.
5 THINGS THE FLORIDA LEGISLATURE HAS DONE
1. Armed “Guardians”
Monumental legislation (SB 7026), also known as the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act” directed $97.5 million in recurring funding for school police officers and created a new Office of Safe Schools under the Florida Department of Education.
Many school districts “hardened” schools with improvements like specialized door locks and additional security cameras. Some districts hired more armed “guardians” over and above what state law requires.
Under the law, armed safety guards are now required at each school throughout the state. Safety guards – either active law enforcement officers or trained guards – frequently patrol middle and elementary school hallways daily.
In 2019, SB 7030 allowed teachers to volunteer to serve in the “guardian” program and carry concealed weapons. Additional measures were also put in place upon recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, led by Bob Gualtieri. Democrat lawmakers strongly resisted the expansion allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons.
Last August, Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey announced in a video that school police officers will now carry long guns on school campuses throughout the county.
“You are not coming into my schools and killing our children,” Ivey said in the video. “I firmly believe that if you do not meet violence with violence, you will be violently killed,” he added.
2. Gun Control Measures
In a surprising move, the Republican-led Legislature also banned “bump-fire stocks” in 2018. Bump stocks make a semi-automatic weapon mimic a fully automatic one. The statute specifically states that a person “may not import into Florida or transfer, distribute, sell, keep for sale, offer for sale, possess, or give to another person a bump-fire stock.” Violations are third-degree felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison, five years probation, and a $5,000 fine.
Despite calls from some shooting victims, lawmakers did not ban so-called assault weapons, but they imposed a three-day waiting period on gun purchases and banned gun sales for most Floridians younger than 21. The legislation has been the subject of a long-running legal battle. The law also barred people in mental institutions from owning firearms.
3. Florida’s “Red Flag” Law
A new “red flag” law was embedded in the 2018 legislation. This allows law enforcement to confiscate a gun from anyone they see as a threat to themselves or others. A petition, known as a Risk Protection Order, is required under the law, and individuals have a right to appeal the order. The law has been used to confiscate weapons nearly 6,000 times since May 2022.
“For a cooling off period of a year. Then, in extreme cases, you can go back and ask for a second year,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told WESH 2.
4. Greater Access to Mental Health Services in Schools
Rep. Hunschofsky sponsored HB 899 last year, drawing attention to the shortage of school psychologists in the state. The law, effective May 2022, mandates a mental health coordinator for each school district who will coordinate with the Office of Safe Schools.
The law also directs district superintendents to designate a school safety specialist. The school safety specialist must be a school administrator employed by the school district or a law enforcement officer employed by the sheriff’s office located in the school district.
5. More Law Enforcement Oversight at Schools
Rep. Fred Hawkins (R-St. Cloud) sponsored HB 1421 last year, a school safety bill to bring more uniformity to local safety measures. The bill, which became law in June 2022, revised some provisions relating to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, including mandatory threat assessment teams, emergency drills and family reunification plans.
“I think we need to do a school safety bill every year,” Hawkins said when introducing the bill. “Because things change.”