Fla. Senate committee passes school safety bills

Collier County Sheriff's Office deputies engage in a mock school lockdown exercise at Seacrest Country Day School on Wednesday afternoon. The Collier County Sheriff's Office, Department of Emergency Management and the Collier County School Security Consortium worked with local police, fire and healthcare agencies on the mass casualty exercise involving a school gunman and hazardous materials scenario.

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI // Buy this photo

Collier County Sheriff's Office deputies engage in a mock school lockdown exercise at Seacrest Country Day School on Wednesday afternoon. The Collier County Sheriff's Office, Department of Emergency Management and the Collier County School Security Consortium worked with local police, fire and healthcare agencies on the mass casualty exercise involving a school gunman and hazardous materials scenario.

TALLAHASSEE -- A Senate committee approved three school-safety bills Tuesday, one of the first legislative efforts to handle the emotional issue in the wake of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Two of the bills drew concerns, and one of the measures in particular appears to face an uphill climb. But both of those passed the Senate Education Committee on 7-1 votes, and there were no real qualms raised about a third measure.

The most contentious of the proposals was a bill by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, that would allow local voters to create special districts that could raise money to fund school safety initiatives. The districts and the taxes they could impose would have to be approved through referendums.

“This bill lets the voters decide,” Sobel said. “We don’t decide.”

But some Republicans are hesitant about the bill, saying that it would create a new and unnecessary entity taking care of issues that could be handled by local school districts or cities.

“Obviously, school safety is the highest priority that we have,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “I want to make sure, though, that we do it in a prudent and judicial way to make sure that we’re not expanding the role and scope of government.”

Supporters said the bill recognizes the wide-ranging implications of protecting schools.

“Student safety is not just the interest of the school board or the school district,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former Leon County superintendent. “It’s the whole community’s interest.”

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who chairs the Senate’s education funding panel, said his committee would look to better fund school safety in the budget plan it assembles. But Galvano, who reluctantly voted for the measure, said he believes local officials need to make sure money spent on school safety is spent wisely by looking at schools on a case-by-case basis.

“I think if you’re going to do that properly, you need to start with an assessment,” he said.

The Education Committee also approved a measure that would specifically ban “cyberbullying” and require school districts to address the technological harassment in their policies. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, drew bipartisan support despite some First Amendment concerns.

“It looks like our laws have not caught up with our times. … And until they do, we have kids that are suffering,” said Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz.

But Brandes worried that the law could create legal problems for districts if they try to punish students for actions outside of school. And he suggested the law was unnecessary.

“We have laws on the books that allow for the school districts to deal with harassment, and we have civil actions that deal with defamation,” he said.

The panel passed a third bill by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, that would allow private school districts to join warning systems used by law enforcement to alert schools to potential emergencies.

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