FLORIDA – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit today on behalf of March for Our Lives Florida, the Florida Student Power Network, Dream Defenders and individual students who were denied the right to speak at a recent public meeting held by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, in violation of Florida’s open meetings laws.
Many of the groups’ members, including current high school students, were preparing to leave or were en route to the Oct. 16 meeting in Orlando when they were informed at about 2 p.m. that the Commission had decided to take public comment early instead of the published time of 4:45 p.m. and ended the meeting early. The abrupt change effectively denied the youth advocates their right to publicly address the Commission, the lawsuit states.
“After finding out I would not be able to speak at the meeting, I was infuriated,” said plaintiff Kinsey Akers, a Florida high school junior and member of March for Our Lives Florida. “I could not believe the Commission would go to such a measure to silence the people they claim to be protecting. But I will not be silent.”
The meeting was held at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, a secluded luxury golf resort destination which is located in a suburb inaccessible by public transportation and has an advertised daily parking rate of $18-$32. The location and parking fee made it challenging for people without cars, money to pay for parking, or access to a ride to attend. The hearing was also during a school day when the PSAT and SAT were being administered. All these actions had the effect of excluding young people, like the plaintiffs, from making their voices heard before the Commission.
Florida’s open meetings laws require that state commission meetings are open to the public and held in locations that do not exclude people based on their economic status. They also require that commissions give members of the public proper notice of meetings and a reasonable opportunity to be heard at them.
“The MSD Commission violated the law not once but twice when it denied these young advocates an opportunity to be heard during its meetings,” said Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney for the SPLC. “We raised these concerns both in person and in a letter to Commission Chair Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, but were ignored. The Commission has shown no regard for the law and the communities it is charged with protecting. We are suing to ensure our clients’ voices are heard.”
The lawsuit states that the Commission’s actions are part of a continuing pattern of ignoring the voices of the individuals most affected by their recommendations. A recent report by the SPLC describes how a majority of the Commission’s members have law enforcement backgrounds and virtually no experience in public education, school administration, youth development or mental health. Its voting members appear to be all white and do not include students or current educators.
The plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the Commission to comply with Florida’s open meetings laws. They also ask the Court to issue a ruling preventing the Commission from making further recommendations to the Florida legislature without providing the youth advocates an opportunity to make the comments they were denied at the October meetings.
If given the opportunity to address the Commission publicly, the groups would explain how certain recommendations by the Commission have led to school policies that put marginalized students at risk and make schools less safe.
“I don’t agree with many of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission's policies and decisions,” Akers said. “Their blatant disregard for evidence-based solutions to gun violence in schools raises concerns about their intentions as an organization. They have supported dangerous policies such as arming teachers and increasing police presence in schools-neither of which are supported by research. On the contrary, evidence shows that more guns lead to more deaths. We need voices on the Commission who can speak to these issues.”
Robert Schentrup, a college student in the Orlando area and member of March for Our Lives Florida, also missed the opportunity to publicly address the Commission during the October meeting. Schentrup lost his sister Carmen in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
“My sister was one of the 17 victims,” Schentrup said. “For me my advocacy is a way that I try and make sure that I’m doing whatever I can to prevent the tragedy that occurred to me from occurring to other families.”