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Florida School Safety Panel Settles Suit Over Meeting

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - A statewide panel created in response to the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland signed off Monday on a settlement in an open-government lawsuit.

March for Our Lives Florida, the state branch of a national organization formed by students after the school shooting, Florida Student Power Network, Dream Defenders and individual plaintiffs filed a lawsuit accusing the panel of violating state open-government laws by holding an October meeting at a "remote resort" with parking rates of $18 to $32 and deterring members of the public from speaking.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper in June refused to approve the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission's request to dismiss the lawsuit and asked attorneys representing both sides to try to resolve the issue.

During a commission meeting Monday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of the panel, said the settlement avoided further litigation.

"I don't believe there was any merit to the claims, but nonetheless they would have survived," said Gualtieri, who is also a lawyer.

Under the settlement, the panel pledged that "every effort will be made" to hold future meetings in government or non-commercial buildings that are reasonably accessible by public transportation and have free parking nearby.

The commission also agreed to hear public comments at the end of each meeting and, if a public-comment period is scheduled, "to abide by that time period within a one-hour window." And the commission pledged to announce during each meeting that the public can submit comments through the panel's website.

"We'll get it signed, get it filed, and they will dismiss the lawsuit and we can move on and get back to business," Gualtieri said before the commission's unanimous vote in support of the agreement.

In the lawsuit filed in January, plaintiffs alleged that an October meeting at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, a resort about 30 miles from Orlando, violated state laws because it was difficult to access and some people could not afford to pay parking fees to attend the meeting.

Public transportation did not reach the resort, the plaintiffs argued.

"The combined impact of all these decisions was to prevent members of the public without a car and the ability to pay at least $18 --- more than two hours of labor at Florida's minimum wage --- for parking, the ability to pay for a ride, or the ability to miss hours of school or work, from exercising their rights to attend and give public comment at an important public meeting affecting the safety of Florida's children," lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs, wrote in the 22-page complaint.

Gualtieri said during an online meeting Monday that in-person meetings in the future likely will be held at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, where the commission previously gathered. The arena is located in the county where the 2018 massacre, which left 17 students and staff members dead and another 17 people injured, occurred.

Kinsey Akers, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, submitted a prepared statement that was read to the commission by one of the plaintiffs' lawyers on Monday.

"As students, we have a right to let our thoughts and opinions be considered, and we should feel empowered to do so," Akers said. "It is because of the devotion of our state's hard-working organizers, policymakers, and community members alike that Florida's schools are moving promisingly in the direction of safety, and I am proud that Florida's students are finally being recognized for their valued perspectives."

(©2020 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)

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