By JULIE B. MAGLIO
A Grand Jury Report released in December 2019 analyzed how well the state’s school districts are implementing new school safety laws that went into effect following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy. Part of the inquiry was to determine whether districts have engaged in a misuse of funds earmarked for school security.
Almost a year after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, Governor Ron DeSantis called for the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a Grand Jury to “examine and review school safety measures throughout the state, as well as the responses of public entities to laws designed to protect schools such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” per a press release from the Governor’s office.
The press release also explains what the grand jury would be investigating,
“The grand jury will investigate any crime or wrong within Florida Statute § 905.34 that relates to the following:
- Whether refusal or failure to follow the mandates of school-related safety laws, such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, results in unnecessary and avoidable risk to students across the state;
- Whether public entities committed – and continue to commit – fraud and deceit by accepting state funds conditioned on implementation of certain safety measures while knowingly failing to act;
- Whether school officials committed – and continue to commit – fraud and deceit by mismanaging, failing to use, and diverting funds from multi-million-dollar bonds specifically solicited for school safety initiatives; and
- Whether school officials violated – and continue to violate – state law by systematically underreporting incidents of criminal activity to the Florida Department of Education.”
Current legislation SB7040 has been proposed which incorporates findings from the Grand Jury Report.
Jill Renihan, Director of Safe Schools for Hernando County School District, was asked to review the Grand Jury findings with the Hernando County School Board and how the district (HCSD) fairs in relation to those findings.
Renihan explained that the report was broken up into four parts: Radio Communication, Charter Schools, Guardian Programs and The School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR) system.
The School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR) system collects data on violent incidents, school safety and discipline that occur on school grounds, school transportation, and off-campus, school-sponsored events. It is a special project of the FSU Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research funded by the Florida Department of Education. The system has been collecting data since 1995. The statewide Grand Jury Report found that some districts are intentionally not reporting SESIR incidents. They have made the following recommendations according to a slide presentation delivered by Renihan:
“Rewrite SESIR descriptions to be analogous to FL criminal code.
“Ensure SESIR incidents are reported to law enforcement.
“SESIR incidents should be shared with DOE in real time.
“Create a forum for parents and students to share concerns of underreporting by schools/districts.
“Clarify SESIR descriptions to eliminate “interpretations” by school district staff.”
Renihan explained that she reviews SESIR data monthly along with by Lisa Cropley, Executive Director of Student Support Programs and Jill Kolasa, Student Services Director. From there they communicate any reporting errors to principals. Typically reporting errors include missing information, but there have been less reporting errors in recent months.
Currently they submit SESIR data annually, per Florida statute. The Grand Jury report recommends for the data to be submitted in real time. This would require additional infrastructure and funding so at this point school districts aren’t expected to implement it immediately.
In Hernando County, SESIR-reportable incidents are reported to law enforcement – either for consultation or investigation. The on duty school resource officer receives the SESIR report. The SRO then determines whether additional resources are needed from the Sheriff’s Office.
All school administrators have had SESIR training.
“One of the big issues that occurred in the Parkland situation tragedy was a massive radio communication failure between organizations,” Renihan explained. The city of Coral Springs and Broward County have separate radio communications systems for their respective law enforcement agencies. During the Parkland tragedy, cell phone calls and landline calls to 911 went to different 911 dispatch centers. These failures delayed communication to first responders.
One of the Grand Jury recommendations is to form an oversight agency, that examines communication between first responding agencies. She said that there is a statewide radio communication patch that was not employed on that day, however when employed in other situations its effectiveness has been inconsistent.
The report also addresses that during the Parkland incident, first responders had trouble communicating out of the building to their own dispatch centers by radio. Legislation is now being proposed requiring newly constructed schools to be conducive to first responder radio systems. The school will not receive a certificate of occupancy unless first responders can communicate out through radio. Renihan stated that this of course will add expense as infrastructure like antennae and repeaters will need to be installed.
“Those are expensive and so that's a proposition that will end up definitely costing taxpayers much more money in new construction. It's not a waste of money in any way shape or form if first responders can communicate effectively and efficiently in the situation,” said Renihan.
In Hernando County there is one “primary first responder” agency: The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO).
“That makes things a lot cleaner. We have one dispatch center that we deal with so any communication that goes from us to our dispatch center goes right back out to our first responders; both fire and rescue and they manage the dispatch for both agencies,” explained Renihan.
The district and School Resource Officers also utilize the CrisisGo App to receive rapid alerts about crisis situations. The CrisisGo app unifies HCSD communication with HCSO.
Renihan explained that during the emergency response drill last spring, the statewide radio patch system did work effectively between the multiple agencies that participated.
Renihan pointed out that SROs currently have two radios: one for the Sheriff’s Office and another for the school system. These two radio systems do not talk to each other. She further explained that third party inspection has identified steps to take in order to bridge the radio systems.
Oversight and Sanction Authority
Currently there is legislation being considered to withhold the salary of a school district’s Superintendent and administrators should the school district be out of compliance with school security laws. They may also be subject to criminal charges of negligence. School board members/ Superintendent/Administrators may also be removed from office. The legislation is based on recommendations from the Grand Jury Report.
“I think in terms of the school board, we’re compliant with those requirements,” said Renihan.
The Department of Education Safe School’s Office has appointed a regional contact who oversees five counties. Her duties include conducting safety assessments and reporting positive and corrective actions needed, auditing records and participating in drop in drills.
School Board member Gus Guadagnino questioned Renihan on how students’ stress levels are being affected by the numerous drills they are required to do.
Renihan said, “People know that there is a possibility just based on the sheer number of events that have been happening. The feedback that we've gotten on the preparation efforts from students and parents is much appreciated. Nobody wants to think that that's a possibility but to be unprepared for the possibility is a scarier thing I think. So I think teachers have done a really good job in letting their kids know what to do and letting themselves be viewed as a person who's looking out for those kids.” She said that the additional mental health resources in schools is also making an impact. Renihan says this year there have been fewer threat assessments so far.
Guadagnino asked if there is a number of drills that is deemed to be acceptable in terms of not overdoing it, but also maintains preparedness.
Renihan explained that there is pending legislation to scale back some of the drills. She said it’s statutory that they do a fire drill once a month from a public school facility. Another Florida statute says they must do active shooter drills as often as other drills.
Grand Jury recommendations pertaining to charter schools are as follows:
Require District Sign-Off of charter safety plans
Safety plan should be part of initial charter application
Provide Charter-school specific security funds to ensure compliance with school safety officer
Expand school-district law enforcement authority to cover charter schools
Renihan said that in Hernando County, the safety plan is part of the initial charter application. One area where there will be changes in the district is safety inspections for charter schools which will begin this month. In the past, the district has given the charter school the option of whether or not to undergo safety inspections and drop in drills. But now Renihan says, “It's not an ask anymore. It's a ‘this is going to happen.’ We need to be there and do that and there's multiple references to them being public schools and so, what that means is they need the same level of inspection.”
There are three charter schools in Hernando County and they do meet the safe school officer (SSO) requirements to be on campus every day from bell to bell. The Grand Jury Report has concerns about coverage when the SSO is sick, on vacation or called away. Hernando charter schools do have more than one SSO or guardian available to ensure coverage.
BEST Academy employs a security firm with multiple employees to cover.
Gulf Coast Academy and Gulf Coast Middle School each have a designated, certified guardian. They share an additional person to provide coverage in the event of an absence of one of the designated individuals.
In Hernando County, Guardians are only utilized at Charter Schools. Previously, Sheriff’s Offices were granted the sole discretion of determining whether or not the county would have a Guardian program. Now, the school board is able to make the decision to utilize Guardians.
The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office does not have a Guardian Training Program, but the school district can seek training from another Sheriff’s Office. That is how the charter school Guardians received their training last summer.
Recommendations coming from the Grand Jury Report are as follows:
“DOE to develop a formal education program to explain Guardian [program]
“School Safety Officer formula to ensure adequate coverage
“Independent (fiduciary) psychological screening
“Participation in Guardian training can ONLY occur after successful vetting.”