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Mental Health Money Sought As State Reels From Shooting

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Less than 24 hours after a troubled gunman killed 17 people — most of them teenagers — at a Broward County high school, a top state senator released a plan Thursday to steer $100 million to public schools for mental-health screening and services and to boost funding for school safety programs.

Sen. Bill Galvano is also exploring what, if anything, lawmakers can do to prevent the sale of guns to people like Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder after Wednesday’s slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Like Floridians throughout the state, legislators in the Capitol were reeling as details of Cruz’s troubled past emerged.

Several Broward County lawmakers rushed to South Florida after news of the shooting broke.

State Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a graduate of Parkland High School, called the scene “surreal.”

“I got here last night. My high school looked like a war zone. Streets that I drive all the time looked like a war zone,” Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said in a telephone interview Thursday morning.

The neighborhood surrounding the school was peppered with mobile command centers and mass triage units on cordoned-off streets, Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz’s 4-year-old son was learning how to write his name when his teacher’s daughter was mowed down by Cruz, who had a lengthy history of disturbing behavior that prompted at least two reports to the FBI identifying him as dangerous.

Moskowitz said he doesn’t know what to say to parents who ask him what lawmakers are going to do to prevent future tragedies.

“We’ll do the same thing we’ve been doing. Which is nothing. We live in a state that if you try to do anything with gun laws and you’re a local official, we will throw you in jail,” he said. “I mean this kid was telling everybody what he was going to do. He was basically wearing a neon sign saying, ‘I am going to come and kill people.’ And yet, he bought a gun legally.”

The Parkland massacre — the second worst school shooting in the nation’s history, after a gunman killed 26 children and teachers at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 — sparked outrage from Moskowitz and other Democrats, whose attempts to pass legislation imposing gun restrictions have been repeatedly rejected by the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Galvano told The News Service of Florida his efforts, for now, are focused on taking action to inoculate schools from tragedies like the one in Parkland that left 15 students and two adults dead and 20 others injured, according to reports from local authorities.

“We have to address the things that we can take immediate action on that aren’t steeped in controversy, such as being more aggressive on mental health and illness, making sure we are taking steps, physically, at our schools to make it more difficult for a perpetrator to conduct this type of activity. And then having the resources available so that schools can have the security they need,” said the Bradenton Republican, who is slated to take over as Senate president after the November elections.

Galvano’s proposal would more than double the $40 million now earmarked for a Senate plan that would create a special category for mental health in the annual funding formula for Florida’s 67 school districts. Under the proposal (SB 1434), school districts, as well as charter schools, would have to develop mental-health plans that would be submitted for review to the state.

The mental health plans would have to include partnerships with at least one community program or agency to provide “prevention, diagnosis and treatment services for students.” The services would be aimed at reducing social, emotional or behavioral problems in at-risk students and could deal with issues such as bullying, trauma and violence.

“How do we get help to the kids that have issues, so that it doesn’t escalate to where we are now. That unites us. There is no one that disagrees with that concept, no one. It’s just a question of how we do it, and how much money we put into it,” Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who’s sponsoring the legislation, told the News Service on Thursday.

The Senate’s proposed $87 billion state budget for the upcoming year also includes a $13 million increase for “safe school funding,” money that can be used to pay for school resource officers, among other things. The House budget proposal keeps safe school funding at its current $64 million level, which is 10 percent less than the state gave to school districts for the program a decade ago.

“We may have to refocus those dollars and make sure that those dollars are doing what they are actually supposed to do and not going to bonuses and things like that, and put additional dollars on top of it,” Galvano said.

According to Galvano, only 1,500 of the state’s 4,000 schools have dedicated school resource officers, although some schools rely on sheriff’s deputies to provide security.

“Some of these dollars need to be available to fill in the gap,” he said.

School districts are also required to perform safety and security audits, something Galvano said he pushed as an education committee chairman following the Sandy Hook shooting. Galvano said the audits haven’t been completed yet, “and that needs to happen.”

Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who will become House speaker in November, told the News Service his chamber is open to discussions about the mental-health funding for schools, with a caveat.

“If we take a real comprehensive view and we try to really find a solution, we don’t simply take a large amount of money, move it in a direction, and then walk away feeling like we prevented this,” Oliva said. “Especially in light of a terrible tragedy, we should rush to the conversation. We should not rush to the conclusion.”

In Parkland, Moskowitz — who said he waited with parents Wednesday night as law enforcement officials informed them whether their children had survived — welcomed news of the Senate proposal.

“Something is better than nothing. So, I’ll take anything. Give me something to go back to these parents and say, ‘This time was different. We did something,’” he said.

Republican leaders expressed remorse and sent prayers of support to victims and survivors of the Parkland shooting. But they avoided talk of gun-control measures that would limit access to or sales of automatic rifles like the ones used by Cruz and a shooter who killed 49 clubgoers at a popular Orlando gay bar less than two years ago.

But Gov. Rick Scott, on the scene in Parkland, said Thursday he wants to explore “how to make sure individuals with mental illness do not touch a gun."

Florida law bars people who have been involuntarily committed under the Baker Act from purchasing firearms. A 2013 law expanded that prohibition to individuals who voluntarily admit themselves for mental-health treatment.

But Scott indicated he might want an even broader prohibition.

"If someone is mentally ill, they should not have access to a gun," Scott said.

Galvano said he, too, is exploring such a possibility, but stopped short of opening a debate on the emotionally charged gun-control issue.

“We need to explore that issue and understand both the political realities and then the physical realities of someone who has a chronic history of posting things on social media that a lay person could identify as warped. How someone like that, in the existing system, could end up with a firearm that ultimately engages in this,” he said.

But when asked where state law fell short, and what can be done, Galvano admitted he doesn’t yet know.

“I’m looking into that. We’re going to have that discussion. I don’t have a specific answer right now. But we can’t ignore that aspect of it,” he said. “While we’re off having a debate, there are things we can do today to make our students safer.”