Grand jury report puts four more school districts’ safety procedures under state scrutiny

Florida Politics | Anne Geggis | September 5, 2022

The state Department of Education is asking for meetings with the superintendents of the state’s largest school districts.

The grand jury report that shook up the Broward County School Board last week also prompted the state Department of Education to send letters to four other school districts warning of failures to follow the state’s school safety requirements.

The letters arrived Monday asking superintendents in Broward, Duval, Orange, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties to meet with officials from the State Department of Education (DOE) to address items that Tim Hay, director of the Office of Safe Schools said required an in-person meeting due to the “gravity of the issues.”

“We have reason to believe that some of the policies and actions the grand jury found are ongoing and require immediate action,” all five letters dated Monday say.

Most of the grand jury’s report focused on the Broward County School Board’s failure to manage an $800 million bond voters approved in 2014 to repair and renovate the district’s aging facilities. And that item, which resulted in the removal of four Broward School Board members last week, was at the top of the list of items state officials will be meeting with Broward County Superintendent Vickie Cartwright about. But all five school districts are also facing state scrutiny for underreporting criminal activity on campus, according to the letter.

These five districts are among the six largest in Florida. The state did not respond to a follow-up inquiry from Florida Politics about whether the grand jury also scrutinized smaller ones.

Gov. Ron DeSantis convened the grand jury in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The findings about Broward County have gotten most of the attention, even resulting in the arrest of Superintendent Robert Runcie and two other Broward County school officials. But the grand jury found much to complain about, particularly in Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties.

Offenders are allowed back at school, serious incidents are suppressed and school districts are going their own way when it comes to cooperating with law enforcement, according to the grand jury report that was completed in 2021. But it was not released until last month because of ongoing litigation.

The grand jury reported extensively on Palm Beach County’s use of a security company to train would-be charter school cops to meet the state’s new school security laws. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office found the services of the company, Invictus, were lacking and the company was fired.

Palm Beach County Superintendent Michael Burke noted the grand jury report did not find Palm Beach County schools’ reports of criminal activity lacking. A meeting with Hay is scheduled for Friday, the letter said.

Miami-Dade’s reporting of criminal activity was in the spotlight for wild variations year to year, the grand jury report shows. One year had hundreds of reports of fights and battery and yet the next year had zero incidents like those reported.

Miami-Dade County School Superintendent Jose Dotres, who took the helm of the district in February, is aware of the problem, according to a statement his administration provided.

“M-DCPS has taken a proactive role by implementing a number of measures to improve and align data reporting to address matters regarding student discipline,” the statement read. District officials have already met with the state on this issue, according to the district.

Broward County School officials said the district fully intends to cooperate with the state and noted the current superintendent took over the country’s sixth-largest school district a year ago.

“The District has already implemented significant changes to address concerns outlined in the FLDOE letter, specifically to improve school safety and the management of the … bond,” spokesman John Sullivan wrote.

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