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To better protect children, private schools in Florida should get safety alerts, too

by James Herzog

Sadly, if we hear even once about a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings last week in Newtown, Conn., it is once too much. We all want answers to ensure parents can take their children to school each day and remain confident that learning will occur in a safe environment.

Yet our beloved Sunshine State – and every state in the nation – is not immune from seeing a similar tragedy in one of our own schools, though God forbid such a day happens again anywhere. As recently as March, we learned about a dedicated Episcopal high school administrator in Jacksonville, Fla. who was shot and killed by a disgruntled former teacher. The massacre at Columbine High School in Denver back in 1999 led to intense national scrutiny, followed by efforts like “Rachel’s Challenge” to promote a more civil society. (It was named in honor of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the slain students). These events show student safety is a top priority for public and nonpublic schools alike.

Against this backdrop, many news articles have suggested actions that should be considered by the Florida Legislature during the upcoming 2013 session. One idea which could be a “no brainer” for lawmakers is to secure final passage of a long-awaited “student safety/ notification” bill. It’s a non-controversial and bipartisan measure that has been under consideration for the past two sessions – and even passed unanimously from the Florida House floor – but fell short of final passage in the Senate.

During the 2012 session, Senate Bill 494 and House Bill 273 regarding student safety were based upon a key proposal reintroduced from the 2011 session. The proposal would require response agencies that already notify public school districts about local emergencies – such as bomb threats, natural disasters and fires – to also notify nonpublic schools. The bills provided an “opt-in” method for nonpublic schools to determine whether to receive such alerts.

The House sponsor was Rep. Martin David “Marty” Kiar, D-Parkland, who recently left the House and was elected to the Broward County Commission. For this reason, a new House sponsor is needed for the bill to advance in 2013. The Senate sponsor was Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City.

The original idea was generated by former Rep. Kiar and his mom, Marianne Kiar, a former Catholic school principal. Catholic school leaders have heard about several recent cases in which public schools in a local area were on lockdown status and our administrators and parents in nearby schools were not informed.

This law would be a welcome change from that. Nonpublic schools could opt in for receiving important alerts while maintaining their autonomy in providing academic excellence.

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BY Special to NextSteps