In the aftermath of the school shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida's legislature introduced several measures to better protect students. Those measures have now been updated following a report by the Public Safety Commission set up as part of the initial legislation.
Florida´s legislature was not slow to react following the tragic events of February 14th 2018. Within a month, the legislature passed The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) Public Safety Act which - among a number of measures to better protect students - raised the minimum age for the purchase of any firearms to 21 years, introduced a “red flag” law to disarm individuals considered a risk to themselves or others, and established the MSDHS Public Safety Commission.
The role of the Public Safety Commission was to investigate system failures in the Parkland school shooting and develop recommendations for system improvements throughout the state. The Commission published its report in January; and, in May, a bill implementing the legislative recommendations (SB 7030) was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis. We look at the key points of the updated legislation and discuss which might be most effective for better protecting students.
Will Arming Teachers be as Effective as it is Hoped?
One of the most contentious measures to better protect students in Florida is an extension of the Safe School Officer program. This program allows teachers to volunteer as armed School Guardians if a school district chooses to participate in the Safe School Officer program. There has been a considerable amount of heated debate about this measure, but when you look at the wording of the legislation, it is not going to result in each school being defended by scores of armed teachers.
The legislation allows school districts to decide whether or not it wants to participate in the program. If it does opt in, each school district has the option of deploying one armed School Resource Officer, one armed School Safety Officer, one armed School Security Guard, or one armed School Guardian at each school. School Districts can prohibit classroom teachers from volunteering to be armed School Guardians, or limit which teachers are allowed to volunteer.
Having one armed teacher in place of a School Resource Officer at each school is unlikely to be an effective measure to better protect students - or even be a deterrent to would-be school shooters. In the three most tragic school shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012, all three schools (Marysville Pilchuk High School, Santa Fe High School, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School) employed armed School Resource Offices. Two prevented an exacerbation of the tragedies. One ran and hid.
Risk Assessments and School Hardening Recommendations in the Balance
The Florida Safe Schools Assessment Tool was introduced in 2015 as a way of helping school districts assess seven general areas of safety and security. In terms of effectiveness, it did very little to protect students in Florida, as it was designed for districts rather than individual schools. It´s now been updated to include areas such as school emergency preparedness planning, physical security, and training needs, and school districts have to use the tool to compile a risk assessment at each public school site.
The outcomes of the school assessments and a report being compiled by the School Hardening and Harm Mitigation Workgroup and due in September 2019 will be used as the basis for further measures to better protect students. It is expected that both the Florida Department of Education and the Harm Mitigation Workgroup will demand more accurate reporting of school incidents and compliance with the risk assessment requirements - issues mentioned in the MSDHS Public Safety Commission's report.
More accurate reporting of school incidents will be hard to enforce. In 2018, a review of the federal Department of Education's school incident statistics found that 89 percent of the nation's eleven thousand colleges and universities failed to disclose a single incident of rape despite numerous studies showing sexual assault and rape were common events on campuses. Unfortunately, without accurate reporting, the measures to better protect students will fail to protect them against day-to-day threats.
More Support for Mental Health Services should Prove Effective
In 2018, the original MSDHS Public Safety Act, the Mental Health Assistance Allocation was created and funded with the biggest slice of money allocated in the Act - $97 million. The money was intended to assist school districts in establishing school-based mental health care units or expanding existing units. The latest measures to protect students in Florida make more money available to ensure the continuation of services when students transfer to a different school.
Since the passage of SB 7030, it has also been announced that mental health classes will also be added to the school curriculum for sixth-graders and upwards from next year. The new classes will require students to take courses aimed at helping them to identify the signs and symptoms of mental illness, find resources if they are battling with depression or other issues, and teach them how to help peers who are struggling with a mental health disorder.
Of all the measures to better protect students in Florida, this may be the most effective, but probably the hardest to quantify. Research shows that 50 percent of all mental illnesses begin by age 14; so, by educating students about the symptoms of mental health and getting the discussion into the open, it is hoped that those suffering with depression or other issues will seek the help they require. Furthermore, mitigating the stigma of mental health may benefit the community in general.
Anonymous Tip Apps have been Shown to Prevent and Resolve Crimes
Whereas the success of increased mental health funding and education may be hard to quantify, anonymous tip apps have been shown to prevent and resolve crimes. Florida's Department of Education has now launched its own app, and has tasked its Office of Safe Schools with promoting the app among students. The Office of Safe Schools will also be coordinating with the Department of Law Enforcement to produce statistics about the effectiveness of the app to encourage more students to adopt it.
Florida's student app works in much the same way as regular anonymous tip apps. Users - who may be fearful of repercussions if their identity was shared - can safely and discretely report a suspicious event to school officials and law enforcement officers via an anonymous SMS text message. The tips are recorded on a central system to ensure accountability, and analyzed in real time to identify patterns and prioritize threats so that resources can be used more efficiently.
Anonymous tip technology has been shown to increase engagement in many use cases; and, with the additional support for mental health services in Florida's schools, anonymous tips apps could prove to be one of the more quantifiably effective measures to better protect students. If you feel they could be of benefit in your school, college, or university, contact our team to find out more and organize a free demo of tip technology in action.