TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With the proposal’s sponsor saying children growing up now "have issues" in part because "they don’t have time for moments of reflection," a House panel Tuesday approved a controversial bill that would mandate daily moments of silence in schools.
The measure (HB 529), sponsored by House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, was backed by the House Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee in a 12-6 vote.
Similar proposals have been considered in the past, with the House approving a bill during the 2020 legislative session. The measure did not get through the Senate, as Fine said "a lot of things got off track" due to COVID-19.
Fine, who has school-age children, centered his arguments Tuesday on depicting today’s youth as having too many distractions.
"They’re so focused on Instagram and Snapchat, whatever’s going on in school and extracurriculars, that they never have that opportunity to get centered before the beginning of the day," Fine said.
The meeting came two days after the third anniversary of a shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 students and staff members. Fine brought up the mass shooting as an "extreme example" of the kinds of problems in society he said his bill is trying to address.
"I think that what happened in Parkland is endemic of a much larger problem that this bill is intended to make one small step towards addressing --- the notion that kids have become detached from the larger world, that they don’t have time to reflect," Fine said.
But Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, a Democrat who was Parkland mayor at the time of the February 2018 shooting and serves on the Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee, appeared to take issue with that argument.
"No moment of silence was ever brought up in any of the MSD Commission meetings, by any of the experts, by anybody from the Secret Service, nor anyone else down the line, that a moment of silence would’ve done anything to prevent that tragedy from happening," Hunschofsky said during Tuesday’s meeting, referring to a state commission that investigated the shooting.
"To be clear, I’m not saying if this bill had passed, Parkland wouldn’t have happened," Fine said.
Hunschofksy asked Fine and members of the House panel to be "reflective of what one says."
"There are 17 families who have lost their loved ones permanently in an awful tragedy. And I just want to make sure that when we talk about other people’s experiences and situations, we come with an open heart and an open mind and a sense of humanity," she said.
Like the versions proposed in past legislative sessions, the bill received pushback Tuesday from critics who argued it is a threat to the separation of church and state.
"The mandatory moment of silence is setting up children who do not pray, whose faith doesn’t ascribe to a bowed-head posture, or who just don’t want to participate, setting them up for bullying," said Devon Graham of the organization American Atheists.
Fine argued his bill explicitly would not push religion on public-school students, pointing out it would remove references to prayer in a current law that allows for "silent prayer or meditation" at the start of each school day or week.
Fine went a step further in arguing that his proposal has no bearing on the separation of church and state, saying the concept isn't explicitly written into the Constitution.
"There is no such thing as a separation of church and state. It is a fiction that has been created by some people. There is no establishment of religion," Fine said. "That is very different than the prevention of religion."
Democratic lawmakers on the panel raised questions about part of the bill stating "students may not interfere with other students' participation" in the moment of silence.
Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, said she worried the provision could be used as a punitive measure that could disproportionately affect students of color.
"Being a Black mom, and working to end the school-to-prison pipeline, I know that Black students are disproportionately and at a higher rate disciplined more than white students," Nixon told the panel, adding that she has young children.
"I know how hard it is for them to stay still. And so I just think that this bill could create an atmosphere where students of color, Black students, are disciplined at a higher rate," Nixon said.
Fine said he would consider changing that part of the measure to avoid creating "an instrument that can be used to discipline students."
The bill would also add responsibility for educators, requiring that every "first-period classroom teacher shall encourage parents or guardians to discuss the moment of silence with their children and to make suggestions as to the best use of this time."
An identical Senate bill (SB 282), filed by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, was approved by the Senate Education Committee this month. To become law, one of the bills would need approval during the legislative session that will start March 2.
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