State to OCPS: Give ‘immediate attention’ to school safety, discipline issues

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | October 3, 2022

Orange County Public Schools must give “immediate attention” to how it manages student behavior and reports student discipline incidents because the problems outlined in a grand jury report still remain, according to a recent letter sent to the school district from the Florida Department of Education.

The letter suggested more serious problems, however, than those outlined by the grand jury, whose work was released in August. The grand jury, convened after the Parkland high school massacre in 2018, investigated whether the school district in Broward County, the site of the tragedy, and other districts were following school safety laws enacted after the shooting deaths of 17 students and staff.

The letter accused OCPS of failing to “submit timely and accurate school safety and discipline data” to the department, as state law requires.

Preliminary data from the 2021-22 school year, for example, shows more than 100 cases where Orange students were disciplined for the “use of a weapon” but no matching records were found in the state database, according to the letter from Tim Hay, executive director of the department’s office of safe schools.

The letter was dated Sept. 22 and released by the education department to the Orlando Sentinel on Monday.

The office “will conduct a review with your district regarding the student code of conduct and classroom management strategies, to ensure that Orange County Public Schools is providing a safe learning environment free of major classroom disruptions,” read Hay’s letter.

The grand jury report, by contrast, focused mostly on isolated problems in Apopka schools, citing incidents from 2016 to 2019. There are 10 of 210 OCPS schools in Apopka city limits. Both OCPS administrators and the Apopka Police Department have said they worked to resolve those problems.

The grand jury said it found no evidence of widespread problems in Orange but called some of OCPS’ school safety data “suspect.”

OCPS confirmed it had received Hay’s most recent letter and said staff members are reviewing it but provided on other comment.

Superintendent Maria Vazquez met on Sept. 7 with Hay, after he requested a meeting with her and with the superintendents of some of the other districts cited in the grand jury report, including Miami-Dade, Duval and Palm Beach.

Florida requires school districts to report a variety of incidents to the state, from bullying to vandalism, arson to weapons possession.

Hay’s most recent letter also said that the preliminary data for last year showed OCPS had more reported incidents than any other district in the state.

A spokesperson for the education department did not immediately respond to questions about the apparent contradiction of both accusing OCPS of failing to report data but also saying it had more incidents than 66 other districts.

The data the department referenced is not yet on its website. But data from 2020-21 suggests not all districts are reporting incidents in the same manner.

That year, OCPS, with more than 204,000 students, reported 4,896 incidents, and the Hillsborough County school district, with more than 224,000 students, reported 5,300 incidents. But the Miami-Dade County school district, with more than 329,000 students, reported 1,519 incidents.

Hay’s letter said OCPS employees need more training to make sure they are reporting incidents “consistently and accurately.”

The grand jury report released Aug. 19 focused mostly on safety issues in Broward, harshly criticized Broward school officials and recommended Gov. Ron DeSantis remove from office four Broward County School Board members. He did that on Aug. 26.

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