A mixed bag on Florida's school safety legislation

March 21, 2013 

While gunfire and slayings are rare at schools, the deaths of 26 students and teachers in Newtown, Conn., and the massacres at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech must be addressed with greater security measures. Florida lawmakers have reacted accordingly, though several bills should be rejected.

Besides legislation to allow teachers and others to carry concealed weapons inside schools, three other major bills winding their way through the Legislature address school safety in the wake of the December tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Two offer common sense strategies for improving security.

One in particular shouldn't need a state mandate, it's so simple. The companion measures in the Senate (SB 790) and House (HB 989) address school emergency procedures by requiring regular lockdown drills in addition to fire and other evacuation drills. The bills also require schools to submit after-drill reports to the district, and districts to review and revise safety policies and procedures as needed on an annual basis.

Students and teachers should be prepared to seek safety inside classrooms in the event of an intruder threatening school security. This holds the potential to reduce panic in the event of an emergency. There is little cost, too.

But costs could be the deciding factor as parents, teachers and administrators clamor for greater security as well as more mental health services for students. But cash-strapped districts -- especially Manatee County's -- have little if any spare money to spend on safety programs. To that end, two pieces of legislation focus on new funding sources.

SB 1208 and HB 325 establish the Safe Schools Trust Fund by earmarking some of the firearms and ammunition taxes for school-safety programs. Gun owners shouldn't mind helping to increase campus security.

While the Senate bill's sponsor, Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, figures the NRA will be opposed and his bill stands little chance of passage, this is good public policy. The National Rifle Association stands to gain positive reactions with public support of this measure.

Another school security funding measure is typically bad Tallahassee fare. SB 514 and HB 873, misnamed the School Safety Act, authorizes counties to create independent special districts to levy an annual ad valorem tax of up to 0.5 mills specifically for school security and mental health programs. The funds are intended for improvements in services for schools and students, not to replace current spending. Voters would have to approve the special taxing district.

This is just another example of the tax-averse Legislature abdicating its responsibility to adequately fund school districts and shifting more responsibilities and costs down onto county taxpayers. Even as Senate Education Committee members expressed qualms about a new tax, the bill recently passed on a 7-1 vote.

The fourth major school safety bill, HB 1097 and SB 1418, authorizes superintendents and principals to designate teachers and other school personnel to carry concealed guns on school property -- a very poor idea fraught with dangerous unintended consequences. As we opined earlier this month, only highly trained law enforcement officers should be protecting schools from gun-wielding intruders. Teachers cannot be expected to react to dangerous situations and gunfire like a resource officer.

If the Legislature is truly intent on improving school security instead of playing politics, then lawmakers should provide funding for resource officers in all schools. The Safe Schools Trust Fund would be a step in the right direction.

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