About 20 Jacksonville students from Jean Ribault, Atlantic Coast, Mandarin, Sandalwood and Englewood high schools gathered in Ribault’s media center Wednesday to meet with state lawmakers about school safety.
The students and lawmakers met after many of the students had traveled to Tallahassee to testify about a massive new safety bill but not all of them were able to speak.
The main topics of conversation: How do lawmakers plan to keep students safe? And how can students have their voices heard?
The Northeast Florida delegates who attended were: Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville), Rep. Cord Byrd (R-Jacksonville), Rep. Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville), Rep. Kimberly Daniels (D-Jacksonville) and Rep. Clay Yarborough (R-Jacksonville).
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting in February, lawmakers scrambled to pass a school safety bill dedicating $99 million to making school buildings safer; requiring police officers or trained, armed individuals at all schools; and changing gun policies, including the banning of bump stocks. Bump stocks are attachments that allow semiautomatic rifles to fire faster.
Students asked lawmakers about the measures and how they’d be implemented.
Byrd said some of that is still being figured out, adding that the bill created a state commission that includes parents who lost children in the shooting, to recommend legislation.
Gibson said it’s likely next session the law will be fine tuned. And Yarborough said passing the bill under such a tight deadline was “very difficult.”
Mandarin High junior Connell Mosley asked how a single school resource officer could be effective on spread-out campuses like his.
Davis said it’s a tough problem to solve, and properly securing schools will be different for each building, saying in some cases it might mean adding fencing.
“It's going to feel different because there are going to be measures that we need to put in place to harden schools,” Davis said. “Everything will boil down to resources, the financial dollars we can put into it."
“It costs money,” Gibson said.
Another student asked why there hasn’t been an emphasis on metal detectors.
Yarborough pointed out that’s an avenue individual districts can choose to take because “school hardening” dollars can be used for a number of modifications, including bulletproof glass and lock systems.
Ribault sophomore Jayla Thomas asked how lawmakers plan to enact safety regulations without criminalizing students. She asked, “Why place the burden on us with metal detectors and clear backpacks?”
Afterward Thomas elaborated in an interview, saying, “I plan on becoming a doctor, and one of the big things in the CDC is prevention. So why start here when the biggest prevention that we can take is banning the gun itself.”
Davis said she agrees with Thomas, adding that banning assault-type weapons is an issue she’s been fighting for.
“The movement of voices that we’re hearing from schools is they want the assault-type weapons banned and I don’t know, to be honest, if we’ll ever get there,” Davis said after the event.
One Atlantic Coast student asked the lawmakers, “How do we get you to hear us?”
Byrd encouraged students to develop a method, like a Facebook page, to gather input at school and filter it up through the School Board to legislators.
Daniels said she’d happily meet with students to hear their concerns.
She also added she hadn’t been working with School Board members as much as she should due to disagreements and fear, but she wants to change that.
“When I first heard about this meeting, my guard was up,” she said.
After the meeting, Byrd summed up his takeaway this way: “We’re having a conversation about school safety not only in Florida and in our community but around the nation, and so it was important for me and my colleagues in the delegation to come and listen to students and hear what they’re experiencing."
Thomas, the Ribault sophomore, left a little skeptical.
“They did what every politician is trained to do. They responded, they kind of went around and they circumnavigated it," she said.