A Year After Parkland, Florida Governor Asks Grand Jury to Investigate School Failures

by | February 15, 2019 AT 7:20 AM

By Scott Travis, Scott Travis and Skyler Swisher

A year after the worst high school shooting in U.S. history, Gov. Ron DeSantis wants a grand jury to investigate possible wrongdoing on the part of Broward County schools.

He announced the move Wednesday at the Broward County Courthouse, with bereaved families of Parkland victims standing shoulder to shoulder behind him. It came on the eve of the one-year mark of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, which killed 17 people and wounded 17 more last Valentine's Day.

If the Florida Supreme Court accepts the petition by DeSantis, this would be the fourth time a grand jury has investigated the school district. The other grand juries were in 1997, 2003 and 2011 and focused largely on mismanagement and corruption related to school construction and facilities.

The governor can only petition for a statewide grand jury, so the panel would review the actions of school districts across Florida. But the governor made it clear Wednesday this was about Broward schools.

"We know Broward has to be looked at. I don't know if Hamilton County needs to be," he said. "There's more evidence in Broward than other districts."

The 18-member grand jury -- which could be impaneled for a year -- will have subpoena power. It will look specifically at:

-- Whether refusal or failure to follow the mandates of school-related safety laws results in unnecessary and avoidable risk to students across the state.

-- Whether public entities committed fraud by accepting state funds for safety measures while failing to act.

-- Whether school officials mismanaged, failed to use or diverted funds from multimillion-dollar bonds specifically solicited for school safety initiatives.

-- Whether school officials violated state law by systematically underreporting incidents of criminal activity to the Florida Department of Education.

Reporting by the South Florida Sun Sentinel uncovered many of those problems. In December, the Sun Sentinel reported that Florida's school districts are hiding countless crimes that take place on campus, defying state laws and leaving parents with the false impression that children are safer than they are.

This week, the newspaper reported that Broward schools turned down a proposal in 2013 to levy $55 million in tax dollars for school safety and promised a series of school safety improvements that never took place.

The district also has been criticized repeatedly for its handling of the Parkland shooter's education, its withholding information from the public and its failure to deliver on promises for security upgrades and school renovations from a 2014 voter-approved $800 million bond referendum.

DeSantis sees the grand jury as a sequel to the work of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which was appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott to investigate the tragedy and issued its findings nearly a year later. The grand jury will have a broader scope and broader subpoena power, DeSantis said.

Many of the Parkland families have demanded that schools Superintendent Robert Runcie be removed from office, but DeSantis stopped short of suspending Runcie or school board members.

DeSantis said that he didn't have the authority to suspend Runcie, an appointed official, and that removing board members could overstep his authority. Four incumbents -- three of whom support Runcie -- were re-elected recently following campaigns in which school safety and the superintendent's performance were major issues, he said.

In a statement Wednesday, Runcie emphasized that the grand jury would look at districts beyond Broward.

"I agree with Gov. DeSantis for wanting to know how all school districts in Florida manage money and security issues that impact school safety," Runcie said. "Broward County Public Schools welcomes any review or investigation that could result in improved safety and security in our own district and school districts across the state. What we learn individually and from each other will make us all better and will benefit our students and teachers."

Several School Board members also voiced support for the investigation.

Lori Alhadeff, who won a seat on the School Board after her daughter Alyssa was killed at Stoneman Douglas, was among the families standing next to DeSantis on Wednesday.

"The district is spiraling out of control," she said. "There has been a long history of incompetence of Superintendent Runcie. All I ever wanted was the truth, justice and change."

Board member Robin Bartleman, who has also been critical of Runcie, said: "I welcome the investigation. We need to do everything we can to make sure we're keeping our children safe and executing the bond correctly."

Donna Korn, who is part of the five-member majority that regularly supports Runcie, said she is open to making changes based on what the grand jury finds, but she believes the report will recognize the School Board has taken steps to improve safety. These include hiring a safety consultant, upgrading cameras and intercom systems and updating safety policies.

"I think a grand jury report will help to identify and delineate the full scope of the work we've been doing and continue to do," she said. "There's certainly a great deal more for us to do, but a good deal has been done."

Korn said the grand jury also may uncover how the Legislature has diverted dollars that could have been used for safety upgrades.

None of the six other School Board members could be reached Wednesday.

Families of Stoneman Douglas victims praised the governor's action.

"Today is the beginning of the end of the possible corruption in the Broward County School Board," said Hunter Pollack, whose 18-year-old sister, Meadow, was killed. "It is clear there is a hornet's nest of failures that led to my sister's death. Gov. DeSantis has made a bold move, one that will ensure any wrongdoing will be brought to light."

Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was 14 when she was killed at the high school, called the grand jury "another facet of the search for the truth."

"This is Ground Zero -- so why aren't we acting with all deliberate measures to make sure it doesn't happen again?"

"I wouldn't be surprised to see indictments," Petty said later.

Royer Borges, father of shooting survivor Anthony Borges, said he was satisfied the governor was doing all within his power, but he wishes DeSantis could take quicker action. "Out with Runcie. Nobody wants him."

Earlier in the day, at a news conference in Brevard County, DeSantis ordered an audit of school discipline programs. He instructed statewide law enforcement to develop a threat-assessment strategy for potential mass shooters, and he demanded that efforts be sped up to develop social media monitoring for threats. He also extended a deadline to allow sheriffs to tap into more than $50 million in unused funds for armed school guards.

School officials and law enforcement ignored repeated clues and social media threats that the Stoneman Douglas gunman planned to shoot up a school.

"We are not where we need to be ... so we want to make sure that we are doing all we can so folks have safe schools," DeSantis said.

He said the Legislature will need to act on other recommendations from the statewide commission investigating the shooting. The investigative panel wants classroom teachers to be allowed to carry guns if they voluntarily go through training.

During his remarks in Brevard County, DeSantis said the state needs to develop best practices for discipline programs that have been created to divert students from the criminal justice system who are accused of minor offenses.

"When you don't have accountability in the schools, you are in effect teaching people there is not going to be accountability when you get out of the schools," DeSantis said.

The programs are intended to divert children accused of minor offenses from the criminal justice system, but Broward County's Promise program came under scrutiny after the Parkland massacre.

Critics say programs such as the one in Broward allow troubled students to slip through the cracks. The Sun Sentinel in May documented a culture of tolerance in Broward schools that allowed troublesome students to slide by for years without strict punishment for conduct that could be criminal.

DeSantis said the deadline to apply for funds to station armed guards at schools was too short. The initial deadline of Aug. 1, 2018, has been extended to April 1.

Twenty-five school districts and school systems have collaborated to implement guardian programs, DeSantis said.

The governor criticized the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for not creating a centralized system for monitoring social media threats. It was supposed to be done by Dec. 1, but it has not been done, DeSantis said. The agencies received $3 million for that program.

"I am not going to stand for bureaucratic ineptitude," DeSantis said.

(c)2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)