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Criminal charges for school leaders? Florida eyes as tool for school safety.

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Consultant Dale Yeager is blunt in his assessment of school safety in the United States: Too many administrators are not doing their jobs. He applauds Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for calling for a grand jury investigation of educators, which the state’s Supreme Court approved Feb. 25.

“I’ve seen the death and destruction caused by a preventable crime,” Mr. Yeager says, drawing on more than two decades of analysis of school shootings and safety practices.

The first of its kind in the U.S., the investigation could result in criminal indictments, policy recommendations, or both. From one perspective, a process that threatens criminal penalties for school officials – including those in Parkland, where a mass shooting killed 17 people a year ago – could serve as a needed wake-up call nationwide. From another, it could be an unnecessary hammer coming down on an already high-pressure profession, in which some educators have literally put themselves in the line of fire to protect their students. 

Isolating administrators makes educators uncomfortable. But Mr. Yeager says there is no other way: “Until they are held accountable, it’s not going to stop.”

More than a year after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, public officials are wrestling with who to blame.

Some fault has fallen to law enforcement agencies, and controversies still swirl around many decisions made by school employees and administrators – both before and after the tragedy.

Now add to that mix a grand jury to examine school officials’ compliance with safety laws statewide. It’s the first of its kind in the United States – an investigation that could result in criminal indictments, policy recommendations, or both.

The grand jury is tasked with examining whether school leaders failed to report serious crimes to the state’s department of education, for example, and if they committed fraud or mismanaged funds set aside for safety improvements.

While much of the national dialogue has focused on renewed gun-policy debates – inspired by Parkland student activists – this new move in Florida puts the spotlight on individual accountability. It raises questions about what school and district leaders are expected to do to keep students safe, and what should happen if they don’t.

From one perspective, a process that threatens criminal penalties for school officials could serve as a needed wake-up call nationwide. From another, it could be an unnecessary hammer coming down on an already high-pressure profession, in which some educators have literally put themselves in the line of fire to protect their students. 

School safety consultant Dale Yeager applauds Florida’s newly elected Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for calling for the grand jury, which the Florida Supreme Court approved Feb. 25.

“I’ve seen the death and destruction caused by a preventable crime,” Mr. Yeager says. After analyzing school shootings and safety practices for more than two decades, he’s blunt about his assessment: Too many school administrators are not doing their jobs the way they should.

“Nobody has the political will to investigate and charge them with criminal neglect or other crimes,” says Mr. Yeager, who has reported to government entities on school safety and is CEO of Seraph Inc., which trains and consults with school clients. “Until they are held accountable, it’s not going to stop.”

School administrators around the country will be watching the grand jury’s actions closely.

“It’s uncharted waters for school leaders,” says Joseph Erardi, manager of the School Safety and Crisis Planning Toolkit for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and superintendent in Newtown, Connecticut, from 2014 to 2017. A devastating elementary school shooting took place there in December 2012.

School leaders don’t “wake up wanting anything other than what’s good for children,” Dr. Erardi says. “Whenever there is a tragedy,” he says, there should be “a partnership investigation with school leaders, with school board members.” So to isolate them in a criminal investigation “makes me uncomfortable,” he says.

But Dr. Erardi agrees there’s an urgent need to ensure schools follow best practices. Since Newtown, “some of the low-hanging fruit is still not done,” he says.

Hundreds of thousands of doors in classrooms are still not lockable from the inside, for instance. 

“Safety is an issue [superintendents] need to be in front of,” Dr. Erardi says. When he asks them at conferences how many have athletic directors, they nearly all raise their hands. But when he asks how many have school safety directors, only about a third of the hands go up.

Another essential is partnership with local law enforcement. “If the superintendent and police chief don’t get along, one needs to be fired or leave,” Dr. Erardi says.

Jennifer Montalto listens to testimony during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission in November 2018, in Sunrise, Florida. Ms. Montalto’s daughter, Gina, was killed in the February 2018 mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas. At least 43 states and the district of Columbia require schools to have safety plans, but only 14 require safety audits of school facilities, the Education Commission of the States reported in February.

Many plans, few audits 

At least 43 states and the District of Columbia require schools to have safety plans, but only 14 require safety audits of school facilities, the Education Commission of the States reported in February. (See related sidebar.)

Broward County Public Schools, the district that includes Parkland, created the position of safety chief and filled it in February. Florida created an Office of Safe Schools last year, and now requires schools to use a safety assessment tool that had long been available.

But the December 2018 report by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission noted, “Even after the MSDHS shooting and the implementation of new Florida law requiring certain safety measures, there remains non-compliance and a lack of urgency to enact basic safety principles in Florida’s K-12 schools.”

The report called on all stakeholders – not just school leaders, but also governments, law enforcement, and mental health providers – to do their part. 

One recommendation: Make sure schools accurately report safety incidents. A South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation found that several incidents had not been reported by Stoneman Douglas, and that other schools throughout the state failed to report serious crimes, including rape and murder, to the state education department.

Political backdrop

Governor DeSantis’ efforts to pinpoint individuals for lapses related to the Parkland shooting is part of a broader picture with a political backdrop.

When he took office in January, the governor suspended Broward County’s Sheriff Scott Israel, a Democrat. Sheriff Israel, an elected official, is appealing through the state Senate. He also sued the governor March 7, claiming he was removed for political reasons. A large majority of Broward voters are Democrats.

Governor DeSantis and some Parkland parents have also called for the resignation or firing of Superintendent Robert Runcie in Broward, the nation’s sixth-largest school system.

“He’s seeking to be a reform governor, and right now his actions are proving very popular across the state,” says Charles Zelden, a political science professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But it’s also part of an “ongoing tug of war for power between centralized state government in Tallahassee and the county governments,” which have a lot of autonomy.

Since Mr. Runcie is appointed by the elected school board, the governor can’t remove him.

The current school board includes one parent of a student killed at Stoneman Douglas, and others elected since the shooting. On March 5, it voted 6 to 3 to keep Mr. Runcie in place.

“Now, it is time to come together as a community to ensure all of our schools across the District are safe and secure,” Mr. Runcie said in a written press statement after the vote.

Other views of accountability

The issue of individual accountability doesn’t have to be seen through the lens of partisan politics.

“If the grand jury finds people who are legitimately not doing their jobs, … this will have support across the political spectrum,” Dr. Zelden says. 

Mr. Runcie himself didn’t oppose the grand jury when the Monitor inquired. In a statement emailed by district spokeswoman Kathy Koch on March 7, he said: “I agree with Governor DeSantis’ decision to examine safety measures in school districts throughout the state and support any review or investigation that could result in improved safety and security in our own district and school districts statewide.” 

The Florida Association of School Administrators did not agree to interview requests. 

Whether or not people end up losing their jobs or going to jail, says Mr. Yeager, the safety consultant, “this grand jury is going to have a beautiful, wonderful, long-lasting effect on school safety.”

He says he has seen a disturbing “lack of professionalism,” such as school administrators sitting in meetings and rubber-stamping safety plans they are supposed to be updating. Principals, special education directors, and district leaders will think, “I’m now under a microscope,” he suggests. And school board members will realize, “I have to get intimately involved with school safety, not sit on the sidelines and hope for the best.”

School leaders are asking great questions about how best to keep students safe, notes Dr. Erardi, who fields calls on the AASA’s safety hotline.

“They’re all working hard and we’re moving in a direction that’s a better place,” he says. “If there needs to be an incentive to protect children, you better get out of the business.”



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