Students denied opportunity to be heard
FLORIDA – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is urging the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission to allow students to make comments at its public meetings.
The commission’s refusal to honor its published agenda at a recent meeting violated the Florida Sunshine Law requiring open public meetings and prevented the very people it was designed to protect from participating in the public comment portion of the meeting, the SPLC said in a letter to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the commission. The SPLC sent the letter on behalf of the Florida Student Power Network, March for Our Lives Florida, and Dream Defenders Orlando.
“By refusing to give students an opportunity to make their voices heard through public comment, you denied yourself an opportunity to ensure that the recommendations you make take into account evidence and facts about what ‘school safety’ actually means for all students,” the SPLC wrote.
On Oct. 15 and 16, the commission held a public meeting to investigate the Feb. 14, 2018, mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and recommend changes to school safety policies. The agenda published in advance of the meeting indicated that public comments could be made to the commission on Oct. 16 at 4:45 p.m. However, the commission abruptly adjourned the meeting at 2 p.m., effectively denying groups who were on their way to the meeting an opportunity to address the commission.
“Our clients skipped other obligations, missed school, and spent their own money to be present at the commission hearing,” the letter states. “You not only denied them their statutorily-protected right to speak at this public forum, but you also caused them to waste significant time and resources to plan for travel to the commission hearing only to learn as they were en route that the time for public comment had been moved up by several hours to a time that was impossible for them to make.”
The SPLC’s letter also explained that the commission’s “disinterest in receiving public comments was also made clear by” its “decision to hold this hearing at a secluded Four Diamond resort and golf destination, which advertises a daily parking rate of $18 - $32, is inaccessible by public transit, and is far from residential areas of Orange County.”
The commission’s lack of interest in public comment is particularly troubling because, as the SPLC explained in a recent report, the commission does not represent the community, lacks the expertise to develop comprehensive evidence-based school-safety solutions, and therefore has produced dangerous recommendations. The report, Safe for Whom? How the MSD Commission is Putting Florida’s Children in Danger, can be viewed here.
To remedy public meetings law violations, the SPLC letter demands that the commission commit in writing, within two weeks, the following:
- Provide its clients an opportunity to make public comments in a manner and a time that is reasonably available to them.
- Refrain from making any further legislative proposals, statements, reports or other public comments until the SPLC’s clients have had an opportunity to be heard.
- Commit to holding meetings in accessible locations and honoring times scheduled for public comment going forward.