How we un­cov­ered the threat to Florida’s kids

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Randy Ro­guski

Of all the ques­tions sur­round­ing the hor­ri­fy­ing Park­land school shoot­ing, one arose again and again.

How many other po­ten­tial killers are sim­mer­ing in our schools?

The South Florida Sun Sen­tinel set out early in 2019 to find the an­swer — and, more than that, to ex­plain why.

For eight months, re­porters pored over thou­sands of pages of po­lice re­ports and court records, ex­am­ined state and na­tional laws, re­viewed school poli­cies and in­ter­viewed more than 50 par­ents, ed­u­ca­tors and men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als.

They amassed dozens of jour­nal pages and so­cial me­dia posts in which men­tally ill chil­dren pledged to harm oth­ers. They watched videos of po­lice in­ter­ro­gat­ing kids as young as 12. They as­sessed the lack of men­tal health re­sources in the com­mu­nity and schools.

The pic­ture that emerged was as com­plex as it was trou­bling. The gun­man who killed 17 peo­ple in Park­land is not un­usual. A grow­ing num­ber of se­ri­ously dis­turbed chil­dren sit in reg­u­lar class­rooms, with­out the sup­port they need. Fed­eral law, en­acted in the sim­pler times of the 1970s, lim­its what schools can do to fix the prob­lem even if they had the money. Frus­trated and tor­mented, the young­sters lash out at teach­ers and class­mates, threat­en­ing mass mur­der or at­tack­ing oth­ers in rage.

Af­ter the mas­sacre at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School, Florida law­mak­ers passed a red flag law, which gives po­lice and courts the power to seize guns from men­tally un­sta­ble and vi­o­lent peo­ple and bar them from buy­ing guns for at least a year. In some cases, au­thor­i­ties use these risk pro­tec­tion or­ders against chil­dren and young teens.

The or­ders are pub­lic records, filed in cir­cuit court un­der each per­son’s name. The Sun Sen­tinel sifted through more than 1,600 or­ders filed in 10 large Florida coun­ties and, for the first time in Florida, iso­lated or­ders ap­ply­ing to any­one 19 or younger.

In some places, such as Mi­ami-Dade County, the records were not avail­able on­line and re­quired re­porters to re­view them in per­son. In other coun­ties, re­porters had to file no­ta­rized ap­pli­ca­tions to use the com­put­er­ized records sys­tem. Even then, some coun­ties balked at shar­ing the records of young peo­ple un­til re­porters showed them that the law re­quires it.

In many cases, the court files con­tained emails or texts the of­fend­ers had writ­ten, as well as so­cial me­dia posts and videos — ev­i­dence that il­lus­trated the prob­lem in vivid de­tail. Sun Sen­tinel re­porters cat­a­loged nu­mer­ous mul­ti­me­dia el­e­ments and cre­ated a data­base con­tain­ing the de­tails of more than 100 cases. Where chil­dren were ar­rested, the Sun Sen­tinel also ob­tained po­lice re­ports and, in some cases, body­cam footage from po­lice of­fi­cers.

Typ­i­cally — and for good rea­son — records on chil­dren are not avail­able to the pub­lic. Kids make mis­takes. They have time to learn and ma­ture. A blun­der in their youth should not fol­low them for­ever.

At the same time, the Sun Sen­tinel sought to il­lu­mi­nate the mam­moth task of mak­ing schools safe in a vi­o­lent age. Schools are meant to be safe spa­ces where chil­dren can learn. Kids are not sup­posed to die at their desks.

The Sun Sen­tinel went to great lengths to bal­ance the pub­lic’s need to know with the chil­dren’s right to pri­vacy, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren with be­hav­ioral dis­or­ders. Ed­i­tors de­cided not to iden­tify chil­dren, and de­tails such as school names and even com­mu­ni­ties usu­ally were omit­ted to min­i­mize the risk.

Re­porters also were mind­ful not to gen­er­al­ize about youth who pos­sess a va­ri­ety of men­tal health prob­lems, some vi­o­lent and many not. The news­pa­per took care not to rush to judg­ment about young peo­ple who, in many ways, have no con­trol over their own be­hav­ior.

To un­der­stand why such chil­dren are al­lowed to re­main in gen­eral class­rooms, Sun Sen­tinel re­porters re­searched the com­plex­i­ties of state and fed­eral law gov­ern­ing the rights of vi­o­lent, dis­abled chil­dren in schools. An en­tire bu­reau­cracy, with its own jar­gon, is de­voted to han­dling chil­dren with spe­cial needs.

Un­der­stand­ably, many par­ents and teach­ers were re­luc­tant to speak on the record about emo­tion­ally dis­turbed chil­dren. Nu­mer­ous peo­ple talked to the news­pa­per pri­vately, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the touchy sub­ject of plac­ing trou­bled kids in reg­u­lar class­rooms. Re­porters heard re­peat­edly that schools do not have enough staff, re­sources and help for all of the chil­dren who need in­ten­sive mon­i­tor­ing, as­sis­tance and re­di­rect­ion — chil­dren like the Park­land killer.

Be­gin­ning in June, the Sun Sen­tinel reached out sev­eral times to in­ter­view Broward schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie about the chal­lenges of the 21st cen­tury class­room. He re­fused. The news­pa­per asked again in Oc­to­ber and in Novem­ber. Run­cie did not re­spond.

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