Law­mak­ers vow to act on school safety goal

Grand jury: Plans cob­bled to­gether with ‘chew­ing gum, duct tape and hope’

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Skyler Swisher

A grand jury blasted Florida’s school dis­tricts for dis­tort­ing crime statis­tics, fail­ing to prop­erly discipline trou­bled children and cob­bling to­gether school safety plans with “chew­ing gum, duct tape and hope.”

It also cas­ti­gated lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties for en­dan­ger­ing the pub­lic by re­fus­ing to co­op­er­ate with one an­other on emer­gency com­mu­ni­ca­tions. It found some school safety plans were noth­ing more than last-minute “tem­po­rary fixes.”

Its so­lu­tion: The state and its agen­cies should ex­ert more con­trol over lo­cal of­fi­cials. Disobe­di­ent school of­fi­cials should be sub­ject to re­moval, fines and even crim­i­nal charges if they fail to fol­low the law.

State Sen. Lau­ren Book, DPlan­ta­tion, said she’s ready to lead the charge to make sure lo­cal lead­ers are held ac­count­able, and the re­port’s rec­om­men­da­tions are fully im­ple­mented.

She blasted lead­ers in her own com­mu­nity for fail­ing to work to­gether to build a com­mu­ni­ca­tions tower needed to help po­lice com­mu­ni­cate dur­ing a cri­sis.

“What I want is to not have dead children in our com­mu­nity,” she said. “We need to fig­ure this out.”

She also ques­tioned whether enough has been done to keep children safe in schools. It’s been al­most two years since a gun­man killed 17 stu­dents and staff in a Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land.

“Peo­ple think we’re safer to­day than be­fore Park­land hap­pened,” Book said. “The re­al­ity is I don’t know if we are. This is an is­sue we are go­ing to need to chip away at for the rest of time.”

Other law­mak­ers said Thurs­day they are re­view­ing the re­port, but they ex­pect its rec­om­men­da­tions will be ex­am­ined closely ahead of the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion that starts Jan. 14.

“The re­port is very con­cern­ing to me,” Se­nate Pres­i­dent Bill Gal­vano, R-Braden­ton, said in a pre­pared state­ment. “The fact that we have di­rec­tives that are not be­ing ful­filled is trou­bling. We will take the rec­om­men­da­tions very se­ri­ously and vet through it in the com­ing weeks.”

Here are some the prob­lems and key rec­om­men­da­tions in the grand jury’s sec­ond in­terim re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day:

Prob­lem:

Re­gional “turf wars” are halt­ing badly needed up­grades to emer­gency com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems that would al­low for more ef­fi­cient and uni­fied 911 sys­tems and bet­ter co­or­di­na­tion among law en­force­ment agen­cies. Dis­tricts are build­ing schools with­out con­sid­er­a­tion as to whether po­lice ra­dios will work in­side build­ings.

De­lays and in­fight­ing over the place­ment and ap­pear­ance of new ra­dio tow­ers in Broward ham­pered the abil­ity to ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate po­ten­tial threats.

So­lu­tion:

The Leg­is­la­ture should make a state agency man­age re­la­tion­ships among lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions and en­sure emer­gency com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems are up to date, prop­erly man­aged and suf­fi­ciently funded. School dis­tricts should be stripped of their author­ity to in­spect their own con­struc­tion. That re­spon­si­bil­ity should be given to other lo­cal agen­cies ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing in­de­pen­dent in­spec­tions.

Prob­lem:

The Florida Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion has lim­ited author­ity to en­force state laws and re­quire­ments re­lated to school safety is­sues, and non­com­pli­ance has been a “per­sis­tent prob­lem.” The only re­course the state has to force com­pli­ance is to with­hold school su­per­in­ten­dents’ pay un­der lim­ited cir­cum­stances.

Some dis­tricts de­lib­er­ately ma­nip­u­lated crime statis­tics and in­ten­tion­ally did not re­port in­ci­dents. “The peo­ple ul­ti­mately in charge of school dis­tricts di­rectly ben­e­fit from main­tain­ing — if not im­prov­ing — an im­pres­sion of safety and or­der in their dis­tricts,” the re­port said.

So­lu­tion:

The state Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment should be given suf­fi­cient in­ves­tiga­tive staff and re­sources to pro­vide over­sight. Sanc­tions should be ex­panded to in­clude with­hold­ing state funds, fines, cen­sure, re­fer­ral for crim­i­nal charges and re­moval of disobe­di­ent school of­fi­cials.

Prob­lem:

Char­ter schools are be­ing left un­pro­tected be­cause of fail­ures to en­sure a school safety of­fi­cer is sta­tioned on cam­puses. Also dis­tricts don’t have con­tin­gency plans for of­fi­cers who are out sick, on va­ca­tion or are tend­ing to other mat­ters, such as court hear­ings. The grand jury wrote, “Many of the last sec­ond ‘plans’ sub­mit­ted by the dis­tricts ap­pear to be tem­po­rary fixes held to­gether with noth­ing more than chew­ing gum, duct tape and hope.”

The re­port faulted school dis­tricts for fail­ing to en­sure char­ter schools com­plied with re­quire­ments for school re­source of­fi­cers. It cited Broward’s last minute scram­ble to fol­low the law as an ex­am­ple.

So­lu­tion:

Law­mak­ers should clar­ify state law to ex­pand the ju­ris­dic­tion of school district law en­force­ment agen­cies to in­clude all pub­lic school prop­erty, in­clud­ing school cam­puses. Safety plans should be re­quired to have con­tin­gency plans for backup per­son­nel.

Prob­lem:

Some schools, par­tic­u­larly those with small stu­dent bod­ies, don’t have the fund­ing they need to cover the cost of school safety of­fi­cers. State law re­quires one armed of­fi­cer on cam­pus, but the grand jury found that is not ad­e­quate for larger cam­puses. Dis­tricts have been re­luc­tant to al­low teach­ers to un­dergo train­ing and carry guns on cam­pus, which could “act as a force mul­ti­plier in cri­sis sce­nar­ios.”

So­lu­tion:

The Leg­is­la­ture should cre­ate a grant process to pro­vide sup­ple­men­tal fund­ing for se­cu­rity re­sources. A for­mula should be de­vel­oped re­quir­ing cam­puses with larger stu­dent bod­ies, older stu­dents, more acreage and a greater num­ber of cam­pus-crime in­ci­dents to pro­vide more se­cu­rity.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Peters­burg, said the pub­lic can ex­pect ac­tion.

“Now that this re­port has come out you’ll see a va­ri­ety of pieces of leg­is­la­tion come down,” he said. “I don’t think any­thing is off the ta­ble. You are go­ing to see the con­ver­sa­tion con­tinue and hope­fully the grand jury re­port is fully reviewed and im­ple­mented.”

School of­fi­cials didn’t have an im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the grand jury re­port. Dis­tricts are fac­ing chal­lenges in com­ply­ing with the law out­side of their con­trol, in­clud­ing a short­age of qual­i­fied can­di­dates to serve as school safety of­fi­cers.

The Broward school district didn’t re­spond to a request for com­ment. Joy Frank, general coun­sel for the Florida As­so­ci­a­tion of District School Su­per­in­ten­dents, said she was re­view­ing the re­port.

The Florida Supreme Court or­dered the statewide grand jury probe in Fe­bru­ary at Gov. Ron DeSan­tis’ request. The grand jury has a broad man­date to in­ves­ti­gate schools safety mat­ters statewide and is­sue in­dict­ments. The grand jury has been meet­ing since June and has a one-year term.

The Park­land school shoot­ing hap­pened when the Leg­is­la­ture was in ses­sion and prompted im­me­di­ate ac­tion. Law­mak­ers re­quired an armed guard on ev­ery cam­pus and cre­ated a guardian pro­gram that al­lowed non­in­struc­tional em­ploy­ees to un­dergo train­ing and carry guns. The law also raised the age to buy a ri­fle from 18 to 21 and cre­ated a red flag pro­gram that makes it eas­ier for po­lice to seize guns from dan­ger­ous peo­ple.

Ear­lier this year, the Leg­is­la­ture made a con­tro­ver­sial change to al­low class­room teach­ers to par­tic­i­pate in the guardian pro­gram if lo­cal school boards agree. Most dis­tricts have opted not to arm teach­ers.

That leg­is­la­tion made other changes that didn’t re­ceive much at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing re­quir­ing greater re­port­ing of school safety in­ci­dents, a stan­dard­ized risk as­sess­ment process for dan­ger­ous stu­dents, and new guide­lines on school­based men­tal health.

Law­mak­ers have other ideas for school safety that aren’t in­cluded in the grand jury re­port. Alyssa’s Law, named for 14-year-old Park­land vic­tim Alyssa Al­had­eff, would re­quire silent panic alarms be in­stalled at ev­ery pub­lic school in the state. Jaime’s Law would re­quire back­ground checks for am­mu­ni­tion pur­chases. That bill is named in honor of Jaime Gut­ten­berg, a 14-year-old girl who was killed in the Park­land massacre.

“There is still work to be done, and I think there is still an ap­petite in this body to get it done,” said state Rep. Dan Da­ley, D-Coral Springs. “Even though we are get­ting far­ther away from Feb. 14, we want to make sure we never have an­other Feb. 14th in this state.”

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