Weekly Roundup: Drill, Baby, Drill

By ANA CEBALLOS NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

As classes throughout the state kicked off again this week, the topic of safety was a heated one.

A state school-safety panel grew frustrated with charter schools that don’t have a long-term plan for having armed guards on site at all times, as required by Florida law.

The issue grabbed most of the spotlight during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s two-day meeting in Sunrise.

But “drilling fatigue” was also a big concern for the commission, and for local officials.

The question that emerged: How much safety prep is too much?

“Once a child starts in first grade in our schools, and transition through senior year, we are looking at 276 drills that they are accustomed to,” Capt. Rick Francis, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office director of school safety, told commissioners on Wednesday.

Francis outlined a number of concerns, including students not taking the drills seriously and suffering from anxiety and fear because of them. 

Under state law, schools are required to conduct a number of drills, including fire, natural disaster, active-shooter, hostage-situation and bomb-threat drills.  

The law also requires that active-shooter and hostage drills be performed as frequently as other emergency drills. State law says school district boards shall “prescribe policies and procedures” for emergency drills.

Francis said that, when he asks middle- and high-school students about the drills, they tell him “we do so many, the students and teachers stop taking them seriously.”

Francis recommended putting more emphasis on the quality of the drills, instead of the quantity, a suggestion the commission unanimously agreed to support.

“There seems to be consensus that this commission is willing to recommend a departure from the status quo that there be a drill every month,” Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of the commission, said.

It’s not clear yet, however, exactly what the commission will recommend to the Florida Legislature, which will make the final decision on the frequency of the drills and other school-safety measures.

TEXAS SHOOTING SHUTS DOWN IMMIGRATION TOUR

After a mass shooting in Texas intensified a partisan divide about immigration, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida decided to postpone a statewide “listening tour” focused on the controversial topic.

“The rhetoric is so charged across the political spectrum that in order to have a truly productive listening tour we’ve decided to delay to a later date,” state Sen. Joe Gruters, who also serves as chairman of the state GOP, told The News Service of Florida in a text message Monday.

Gruter’s decision to delay the tour, first reported by Florida Politics, came a week after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in which 22 people were killed. Authorities said the accused gunman wrote online that the attack was in response to an “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

This spring, Gruters and state Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, sponsored a controversial measure that banned so-called sanctuary cities in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned on the issue, signed the measure into law in June.

The Republican legislators had planned to conduct a six-city tour of the state to gather support for other immigration-related legislation, beginning in Venice, St. Petersburg and Altamonte Springs next week.

But Gruters said the debate sparked by the Texas massacre prompted him to put the plans on hold, at least for now.

TWISTS AND TURNS WITH AMENDMENT 4

A federal judge added a new twist Thursday in the legal battle over whether convicted felons who’ve served their time behind bars should be required to pay court-ordered financial obligations before voting rights are restored.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said he wants both sides to address an issue that hasn’t been dealt with in court filings: whether the amendment itself is unconstitutional, and what it would mean if it is.

During an hour-long telephone hearing Thursday, Hinkle said the state law passed this spring by the Legislature “makes clear that a plaintiff cannot vote until the plaintiff has satisfied all the financial obligations.”

“If it should turn out that the Florida constitutional provision, Amendment 4, also provides that a plaintiff cannot vote unless the plaintiff satisfies all the financial obligations, then the question becomes, what happens if that’s unconstitutional?” the judge said.

This is the latest development in a high-profile case that challenges a state law that carried out a constitutional amendment granting voting rights to felons who “have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” 

Under the measure approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature this spring and signed into law by DeSantis, felons have to pay all “financial obligations” ordered by courts as part of sentencing — including fees, fines and restitution — to be eligible to have their voting rights restored.

BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND

Heading into a critical election year, Florida legislators may have to tighten spending because of a combination of a slowing economy and reverberations of financial decisions.

State economists on Wednesday drew up new estimates that predict the state will take in about $867 million less in revenue over two years than earlier anticipated. The new forecast was drawn up on the same day that the stock market tanked amid worries that a recession could be looming.

Amy Baker, head of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, didn’t go that far in predicting a recession but warned of signs that the state economy is slowing.

“In my mind, I think of it as winded,” Baker said. “If you’re on a marathon, and you’ve been on it for a very long time, those last few miles, you’re starting to get winded. I think that’s where we think the economy is. It’s moving into a slowing of growth.”

Economists meet periodically during the year to draw up forecasts of how much general revenue — the main building block for Florida’s nearly $91 billion budget — is expected to come into state accounts. The new forecast approved by economists trimmed estimated revenue by $451.6 million in the current fiscal year, which began July 1 and will be in effect until June 30.

The economists also agreed to reduce estimated revenue for the 2020-2021 fiscal year by $416.1 million. 

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission pressured Broward County school officials to close down more than two dozen charter schools in the county that do not have long-term plans for armed security on campus.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I think I am known as someone who never shies away from debate and is not a bomb thrower. I will debate anyone, anytime, anywhere but I am not interested in just yelling at each other.” — State Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach. State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and Byrd canceled a controversial immigration “listening tour,” following a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

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News Talk Florida Staff