The Senate Education Committee on Tuesday endorsed a massive bill that clarifies requirements for the state’s armed school “guardian” program and imposes standardized compliance measures on school boards, districts, and administrators.
Senate Proposed Bill 7040, a 39-page committee bill, adds safeguards to those approved by lawmakers under 2018’s SB 7026, the $400 million “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” and includes recommendations forwarded by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission.
SPB 7040 also incorporates criticisms from a December grand jury report analyzing how the 2018 initiatives are being implemented by school districts.
Among components is a mandate that the Office of State Schools review district safety reports and withhold pay for administrators who fail to cite “all incidents of material noncompliance.”
Under SPB 7040, private security companies would be prohibited from training guardians. Sheriff’s offices must approve psychological evaluations, drug test results and background checks before candidates enter guardian training.
Guardians can be volunteer school employees or security professionals. All must pass psychological screenings, drug tests and complete 144 hours of training.
The grand jury noted instances of district employees completing training but not participating because they failed subsequent criminal background checks or psychological evaluations.
“Not only does this waste taxpayer resources, it compromises the plans of school officials who believe they are making sufficient efforts toward compliance only to later find out that their intended designees are not eligible to serve,” the report said.
SB 7026 earmarked $67 million annually for the guardian program but, according to a January 2019 report by the MSD commission, only 25 districts had approved it during its first year.
Under SPB 7040, districts and school boards could be penalized for not implementing the guardian program.
SB 7026 also seeded $175 million for student mental health services. Gov. Ron DeSantis wants more money for preK-12 mental health in his Fiscal Year 2021 budget request, which includes:
• $10 million more for school mental-health programs, for a total of $79 million.
• $100 million more in “safe schools” funding, increasing the allocation to $262 million.
• $51 million more for school “hardening” to increase the allocation to $150 million.
Despite the bill’s far-ranging import, it drew little debate during its inaugural hearing.
Dr. Robert Pincus, a Liberty University counselor education professor and former 11-year Polk County school counselor, praised the mental health spending boost before offering “a solution that won’t cost you any money” to ensure those dollars are well spent.
Speaking on behalf of the 5,000-member Florida School Counselor Association, Pincus suggested requiring school counselors to provide direct services to students at least 80 percent of their time on campus.
Like teachers and other staff, he said, counselors are often drafted for collateral functions, such as lunchroom mentoring, bus duty and testing coordination.
“We’re generally the only mental health provider on campus every day,” he said. “Suicide ideation has doubled, completion has doubled the last five years. The first line of defense in schools is school counselors.”
“My first response to you is, ‘Amen,’” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a career school district superintendent, before acknowledging collateral duties are shared by all educators and staff, adding if counselors are exempt, someone else must fill in.
The only solution would be hiring more non-teaching staff, an expensive proposition for many districts.
“We don’t fund school districts to hire the very people you are talking about,” Montford said.
“Then we’re going to have another Stoneman Douglas, we’re going to have higher suicide rates,” Pincus said. “The cost of putting this amendment into the bill is a lot less than the cost to our students.”