In 2019, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission violated Florida’s open meetings laws, effectively denying high school students and youth advocates the right to speak before the commission, which was created to investigate system failures in the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and to recommend broader changes to school safety policies across the state. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit challenging the commission’s illegal actions.
The SPLC filed the lawsuit on behalf of March for Our Lives Florida (an organization formed by the very students who survived the 2018 shooting), the Florida Student Power Network, Dream Defenders, their members and other individuals who were denied the right to speak at the public meeting.
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 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.
Many members of the organizational plaintiffs, including current high school students, were preparing to leave for 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. The commission also ended the meeting hours early. The abrupt change effectively denied the youth advocates their right to publicly address the commission, the lawsuit states.
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, with no nearby street parking or public parking and an advertised daily parking rate of $18 to $32. The location made it challenging for people without cars or access to a ride to attend. What’s more, the parking fee, which is about 2 to 4 times Florida’s hourly minimum wage, likely excluded people with transportation to the site but not enough money to pay the posted parking fee. The commission provided no notification to the public before or during the meeting that the fee could be waived.
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 the public proper notice of meetings and a reasonable opportunity to be heard at them.
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.
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 instead of making schools safer.
In the aftermath of the police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the saturation of our schools with police officers and potential civilian vigilantes with guns is traumatizing and harmful to students’ prospects for educational achievement.