TALLAHASSEE — Signaling problems with a sweeping proposal aimed at making schools safer, Florida Senate leaders Friday ordered a rare Saturday floor session to begin debate on a measure that has become mired in controversy over allowing armed teachers.
The Saturday session is planned as House and Senate leaders race against the clock to reach consensus on a bill before the annual legislative session ends on March 9.
Senate President Joe Negron sent out a memo Friday morning announcing the Saturday floor session, saying the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Galvano, wanted “additional time to work on this important issue.” The Senate had been expected to take up the bill Friday.
Delaying consideration of the measure (SB 7026) until next week would affect the House’s ability to hear the Senate bill because of procedural reasons, Negron said.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has said his chamber will wait until the Senate acts on its proposal before taking up the issue. Galvano has been negotiating with one of Corcoran’s chief lieutenants, House Rules & Policy Chairman Jose Oliva, and Gov. Rick Scott for more than a week on the legislation.
Lawmakers scurried to craft the measure following the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland that left 14 students and three faculty members dead.
Scott is among a growing group of opponents — including many Democrats, black lawmakers and some parents and students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — who object to what has been dubbed the “school marshal” program in House and Senate proposals. That program could lead to armed teachers in schools.
The legislative proposals also include new gun restrictions that have angered some Republicans and the National Rifle Association.
But lawmakers are under pressure from student survivors of the massacre, as well as parents, teachers and others, who are demanding that they act quickly to address school-safety and mental-health issues and raise the age to 21 for the purchase of rifles and other long guns.
Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had a lengthy history of mental health problems, is charged with using a semi-automatic rifle he purchased legally in Florida — with no waiting period — to mow down students and faculty at the Broward County school he once attended.
“Holding a sitting on Saturday is the best option for both working within our existing rules and affording this legislation the serious time and consideration it deserves,” Negron, R-Stuart, said in Friday’s memo.
The Senate will vote on the measure Monday, Negron said.
“My goal is to ensure the Senate has ample time to consider this important bill,” he said.
Negron told reporters Friday evening that he spoke with Scott earlier in the day and that negotiations between the governor, the House and the Senate were ongoing.
Scott “has some ideas” about “non-teaching personnel,” such as coaches and administrators, “perhaps being on the front lines to protect schools,” Negron said.
“We all share the same goal, which is enhanced security and making sure we don’t have a shooter who is killing people and not being met with armed resistance,” he said.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High senior Cameron McEachern, who participated in a press conference Friday morning with clergy members and a handful of House Democrats, is among those who want the controversial provision allowing armed teachers removed from the bill.
“I just don’t get why they even came up with that,” McEachern, 18, told The News Service of Florida. “It’s not what we want.”
Galvano, who will take over as Senate president after the fall elections, said Friday afternoon the “substance of the bill” will remain the same and that the marshal program would not be removed.
“We still have the mental health piece, the school hardening piece, the firearm safety piece, and the marshal program is still in the bill. We have it as a voluntary program and that’s a difference we have with the House still,” he told reporters Friday afternoon.
Under the Senate plan, school boards can decide if they want to participate in the marshal program, but sheriffs would not have to implement it. The House proposal requires sheriffs to participate in the program if school boards opt for the program.
“I’m going to fight for a voluntary program,” Galvano said.
Galvano acknowledged that the gun-related provisions have split Republicans and Democrats, which he said indicates “a balance between competing interests.”
“We have some that think we’re going too far, some that think we’re not going far enough. Certain interest groups like some components, don’t like others,” Galvano said. “But at the end of the day, none of that matters. We had a tragedy just a couple of weeks back. What we should be concerned about is not what group likes what, but can we come together, put a meaningful safety package out there and pass it that’s going to save lives. And then the politics of it be damned.”