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Senate Narrowly Passes School Safety Plan

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.

After two weeks of emotionally charged testimony and raw debate, the Florida Senate on Monday narrowly approved a sweeping measure addressing mental health, school safety and guns in response to last month’s mass shooting at a Broward County high school that left 17 people --- including 14 students --- dead.

The 20-18 vote came after nearly non-stop advocacy from students, teachers and parents, including survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland who demanded that lawmakers take action before the legislative session ends Friday.

The $400 million package includes more than $100 million for mental health screening and services and at least $25 million to raze and rebuild the building where 19-year-old gunman Nikolas Cruz, who had a lengthy history of mental health problems, used an assault-style rifle to slay teachers and students at the school he once attended.

The “Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act” sparked inter- and intra-party schisms, with some Democrats objecting that the bill did not go far enough because it did not include the ban on assault-style weapons sought by many of the survivors and their families.

On the other end of the gun-control spectrum, the legislation posed a challenge for Republicans because it would raise the age from 18 to 21 and impose a three-day waiting period for the purchase of rifles and other long guns, two elements opposed by the National Rifle Association.

The package (SB 7026) has been overshadowed by debate about a “school marshal” program that would allow specially trained school personnel, including teachers, deputized by county sheriffs to bring guns to schools. School boards and sheriffs must both agree to implement the program for it to go into effect.

The Senate signed off on the measure Monday after Republican leaders rebranded the controversial marshal provision, naming it after a Marjory Stoneman Douglas assistant football coach who died protecting students on Feb. 14.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the bill sponsor, said the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program,” would honor the coach “who used his body to shield students from bullets” and “in doing so, lost his own.”

In an attempt to assuage objections to what Democrats disparagingly dubbed the “armed teachers” program, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, offered an amendment that would exclude from the program “individuals who exclusively perform classroom duties as classroom teachers.”

Gov. Rick Scott, who was in Puerto Rico at the time the Senate passed the bill Monday evening, has repeatedly said he does not want armed teachers in schools, something that black lawmakers as a bloc also oppose.

Saying he voted to try to strip the marshal program out of the bill on Saturday, Garcia, R-Hialeah, said, “The whole goal is to try to limit the amount of individuals that can carry in a classroom.”

But Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, argued the “exclusive” language means that teachers who double as coaches --- such as Douglas High teacher Scott Beigel, who was among the 17 people killed --- could bring guns into classrooms.

“It does not change the fundamental flaw in this bill,” Rodriguez said.

Monday’s floor action, which came after nearly eight hours of debate during a rare Saturday session, was another emotional tour de force for senators who have been inundated by pleas from the Parkland community to do something to make schools safer.

Two of the senators who visited the school hours after the shooting broke down while speaking on opposite sides of the measure Monday evening.

Sen. Lauren Book, who helped more than 100 Douglas High students travel to Tallahassee and meet with Scott and lawmakers, sobbed as she described the horror scene at the school, where students’ backpacks, papers and bicycles --- and Valentine’s Day flowers -- were a stark reminder of the carnage that had taken place the day before.

“We may have different ideas about how to get there, but we can and we must work together … and take action for the safety of our schools, and our children,” Book, D-Plantation, said. “They want us to do something. Do I think that this bill goes far enough? No, I don’t. But what I disagree with more is the idea of our allowing the great to be the enemy of the good.”

Calling the measure a first step, Book --- who was one of the three Senate Democrats to vote in favor of the bill --- said lawmakers were elected to represent the will of the people.

“Their will is clear. Let’s get something done,” she said, calling the measure a first step. Democrats Bill Montford of Tallahassee and Kevin Rader, whose district includes the Parkland school, also voted “yes” on the bill.

But Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the Legislature owes it to the victims and to other schoolchildren to vote down the bill because it lacks the ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines sought by many in the Parkland community.

“The mentality that we take what we can get and come back next year and fight for more, I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I can’t vote to put more guns in schools, in the hands of teachers or others,” Farmer said. “I believe this will be the first and last step. ... Because 14 months from now, when we’re back here … the pressure will be reduced and the NRA will be omnipotent again.”

But Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who will take over as Senate president after the November elections, said the bill will make a difference immediately.

“When it becomes law, things will start changing. It will be one of those areas that we will be able to look back and say we did something. We didn’t allow lives to be in vain. We were able to stand up and say to the families to the communities, to the children, to our children, that we listened and we’re trying,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers, but we’re giving it our best, and we will keep giving it our best.”

The Senate bill will now go to the House, which has a similar proposal. But the House proposal would require sheriffs to participate in the controversial marshal program, if school districts order it.

Sen. Tom Lee, a former Senate president who was one of six Republicans --- along with Dennis Baxley of Ocala, George Gainer of Panama City, Denise Grimsley of Sebring, Dorothy Hukill of Port Orange and Greg Steube of Sarasota --- who voted against the measure, predicted the House would accept the Senate’s language.

“I can’t imagine them wanting to bounce this back and have to go through this all over again. I suspect that with an 18 to 20 vote, they’re probably going to take this bill in the House,” Lee, R- Thonotosassa, said. “God help us if they send it back.”