Wilton Simpson reflects on Parkland in Dade City visit

More than five months removed from being one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland is still a considerable talking point for legislators statewide.

At least that — and the state’s ensuing school safety actions — was at the forefront of discussion in State Sen. Wilton Simpson’s recent stop in Dade City.

Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd at The Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce July monthly breakfast meeting, the Florida Senate majority leader talked extensively about the Valentine’s Day shooting, where a lone gunman killed 17 students and staff members, and injured 17 others.

State Sen. Wilton Simpson was the featured guest speaker at a Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce July 17 breakfast meeting at Florida Hospital Dade City. (Courtesy of Richard K. Riley)

In response to multiple questions from the audience, the state senator outlined several “failures” that may have prompted the school shooting — which have been reviewed and investigated through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.

Simpson blasted the Broward County school district’s diversion program called PROMISE, which offers alternatives to arrests for some misdemeanors.

That initiative, he said, “did not use law enforcement appropriately to deal with children with bad behavior and bad activities.”

As an example, Simpson noted the accused gunman and former student, Nikolas Cruz, was visited by police “around 30 to 40 times” over the course of several years prior to the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting massacre.

“You had a child who was clearly mentally deranged in a school system that was causing major problems — they didn’t trust him to bring a backpack to that school — and we allowed him, as a society, to stay in that school. We allowed that. We put everybody at risk because of this one person’s rights to be in that school. We gotta rethink that, probably,” said Simpson, who represents Hernando and Citrus counties, and parts of Pasco County.

Simpson bluntly called out Broward school leaders and local law enforcement for not appropriately vetting all tips related to the alleged gunman’s continually disturbing behavior.

“The sheriff should’ve been fired, the superintendent of schools should be fired, (and) those school board members probably will be replaced in this election,” Simpson said.

He added: “When you look at our responsibility as adults in society, we failed, on so many levels, the Parkland kids.”

Simpson also set the blame on a lack of parental responsibility in the case, and other similar instances that have occurred nationwide: “(Many) parents don’t do anything anymore, don’t raise their kids. Kids get home, they get on a video game; they’re on a video game all day — and that’s what’s raising our kids,” he said.

Simpson also discussed the state’s response efforts in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting.

He, along with incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, visited the Parkland school the day after the massacre.

Simpson told the audience: “We saw the destruction — a very tragic incident. We had to work through that issue and make sure that doesn’t happen again, right?”

Out of it came the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which enacts several measures, including requiring all Florida school districts to provide one or more safe-school officers at each school facility beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.

In addition to permitting a school guardian program, the $400 million spending package allocates nearly $100 million apiece for mental health assistance, and improving and hardening the physical security of school buildings.

The legislation also tightened gun laws.

The new minimum age to purchase a firearm is 21, up from 18, with a few exceptions. A three-day waiting period is now required for most gun purchases. And, it’s now illegal to sell or possess “bump stocks,” which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire faster.

Simpson defended the legislation on the whole: “I think what we did was come out with something that I think will be long-lasting. Not perfect, but substantially good public policy to protect our kids and our school system, so we’re very proud of that.

“We were really working 20 hours a day on this stuff. We had folks coming from all over the state — families of the victims, sheriffs all over the state, counselors from all over the state. We were working day and night, putting those together and vetting those things.”

Also in response to the Parkland school massacre, Simpson noted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) has added a group of staffers whose sole job is to take and investigate complaints about possible suspicious or troubling behavior in schools, via a mobile app unit.

“A student now can go right into the system at FDLE and say, ‘This kid has got serious problems and is threatening gun violence or something in our schools,’” Simpson said.

The state lawmaker also touched on Florida’s economy during his speaking engagement.

He mentioned a handful of funding projects the Florida Legislature has tackled the last several years related to improving public education and transportation infrastructure, and also deepwater seaports and waterways — all of which he believes puts the state in an enviable position, long-term.

“Florida’s trajectory is much better than, I believe, the rest of the country, because of that economic investment that we’re making in our future,” he said.

Simpson also highlighted the state’s AAA bond rating, pointing out the state has paid off about $7 billion in debt over the last six years, while also cutting nearly that same figure in taxes during that period.

Published July 25, 2018

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