Florida safety panel focuses on mental health

A state commission tasked with making school-safety policy recommendations to the Florida Legislature approved a draft report on Thursday that will highlight a need for more mental health funding.

The report, crafted by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, is expected to be finalized and sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker José Oliva as early as Friday.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of the commission, said Thursday that the only thing left to do on the report is fix “typos and spelling, nothing substantive.”

Once finalized, the report will be the second set of recommendations issued by the commission, which was created following a February 2018 mass shooting at the Parkland school, which left 17 students and faculty dead and 17 others injured.

Following a conference call on Thursday, commissioners made a few last-minute changes to the 150-page report, including a recommendation that would allow Florida judges to offer mental health treatment options to minors who enter the criminal justice system.

Commissioners had already made a number of recommendations to Florida lawmakers that focused on mental health, including a request for more money, based on a finding that the state’s “mental health system is not adequately funded.”

While the commission has not specified a dollar amount, it did note that lawmakers should require entities that receive state funding for mental health to coordinate with public and private entities, “especially school-based providers.”

The report also recommends lawmakers put a “greater focus on prevention” by teaching students about character development and “social-emotional learning.” Commissioners said the lessons should start in pre-kindergarten and continue through 12th grade.

“It is important we help youth develop empathy for others, learn how to make decisions, problem solve, resolve conflict, advocate for themselves in an appropriate way, develop self-esteem, and identify and handle their emotions,” the draft report states.

Other recommendations made by the commission include changes to the controversial school “guardian” program, which was created after the Parkland shooting. The program allows specially trained school personnel, including classroom teachers, to have guns on school grounds, with the intent of protecting students during active-shooter situations.

Commissioners suggested that guardians undergo more training to improve their knowledge of how to shoot at night or in low-light conditions. They also want law enforcement officers who are employed by a school police force to be trained on how to navigate interactions with individuals who have a mental illness.

State lawmakers will consider the findings and recommendations in the report during the 2020 legislative session, which starts in January.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.