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Grand jury scolds Florida school districts, says they’re breaking post-Parkland laws

The grand jury said districts are creating “unnecessary chaos” and have become “experts at data manipulation.”
This Feb. 19 photo shows a makeshift memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting in Parkland. [AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File]

A scathing Florida grand jury report released Wednesday said the blatant violation of state laws passed in response to the Parkland shooting is so rampant that local school officials need to be deterred by tougher penalties.

“School district noncompliance with state-level laws has been a persistent problem,” the report stated. “It is clear to us that, once our terms end and the threat of public shaming or indictment is no longer on the table, compliance will never be satisfactory.”

The grand jury recommended that tougher penalties could include withholding of state money, criminal charges and the removal of superintendents, administrators or school board members.

The harshness of the report was met with dismay by some local officials.

Jeff Eakins, the Hillsborough superintendent, said he is confident that districts in the Tampa Bay area are taking Florida’s school safety laws very seriously. But for those that aren’t, he said the threat of removing a superintendent is appropriate.

“It is incumbent on us as district officials to make sure we’re doing everything we can, because we’re ultimately safeguarding hundreds of thousands of students,” he said.

The report asked that the Florida Department of Education be given more resources to investigate whether districts comply with school safety laws passed after the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead and 17 others injured.

The grand jury asserted that the districts are intentionally manipulating data they report to the state, playing games with the requirement that all campuses have armed security and excluding charter schools out of school safety planning, creating “unnecessary chaos.”

According to some of the grand jury’s findings:

  • Districts are becoming “experts at data manipulation” to avoid telling the state the accurate number of incidents of crime, violent or disruptive behaviors on school campuses or at school events. The grand jury said districts are intentionally under-reporting incidents on campus to save face, using Broward and Miami-Dade as examples. “After all, the (incident) data is public, and the people ultimately in charge of the school districts directly benefit from maintaining ... an impression of safety.” To deal with that, “this grand jury will not hesitate to indict school officials for evidence tampering or obstruction.” (The Miami district said the grand jury is “mistaken” that they manipulated data. Broward has not responded to a request for comment).
  • A program created by the Legislature, which allows school staff to be armed on campus after being screened and trained by law enforcement, is “widely misunderstood." The so-called “Guardian” program’s “potential life-saving benefits ... greatly outweigh the risks,” and more districts should take advantage of it, rather than opting to use solely sworn law enforcement officers who pose greater staffing challenges.
  • Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operated privately, are often not in compliance with the law that requires armed security on every campus. Already, the post-Parkland commission had revealed that in the first week of this school year, a third of Broward County’s charter schools did not have a long-term agreement in place for armed security. “It appears many school districts have taken the position that charter schools are somehow outside their governance,” but it is their job to ensure schools have this protection, or revoke the schools’ charters.
  • Radio communications for first responders, despite being a well-known contributor to the failures of the Parkland shooting, are still suffering “large-scale deficiencies” because of “squabbling” between local and regional government entities. Additionally, some newly constructed schools have been approved for use despite the fact that their construction is such that emergency radios do not work indoors — a fact that the grand jury called “inexcusable.” School districts should be “stripped of their authority to inspect their own construction.”
  • Having only one security staffer who is armed is not enough for each campus, as is currently outlined in state law. Florida should develop a formula that accounts for “the size of a school’s campus, its location and the composition of its student body” to calculate minimum number of armed staff required (currently, they can be either law enforcement or armed school staff).

While most of these issues are not new to the policymakers who’ve closely studied the failures and fallout of the 2018 shooting, the grand jury’s emphasis on these specific areas will undoubtedly bring new pressures to school districts. Its recommendations will likely also materialize into bills, as state lawmakers head into the 2020 session in January.

Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation who is on the post-Parkland commission that has closely studied the tragedy, said districts think they are “being cute” by finding technical run-arounds to avoid compliance.

“They’re doing what is convenient for the districts, saying, ‘Let’s do it on the cheap,’” she said. “When you do it on the cheap, kids end up dead.”

Other than a few references to Broward, where Parkland is located, and Miami-Dade, the grand jury report didn’t mention which individual districts were making the violations.

Grand jury meetings are not open to the public and the members are kept secret. This grand jury was convened by Gov. Ron DeSantis in February 2019, and was given a broad mandate to investigate districts’ compliance statewide and issue any relevant indictments. This was its second interim report.

Its term expires after one year.

Miami Herald staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.

This story will be updated.

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