Jim Saunders / News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In a decision that could have statewide implications, an administrative law judge Tuesday ruled that the Palm Beach County School Board is required to assign safety officers to charter schools under a law passed last year.
Judge John Van Laningham sided with Renaissance Charter School Inc., which operates six schools in Palm Beach County and wanted the School Board to provide “safe school” officers. The School Board refused, leading to the legal battle.
Van Laningham, in a 43-page order, pointed to a law passed after the February 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that included a requirement for safe-school officers.
“In sum, after a thorough study of the statute’s plain language, including a review of related statutes at the board’s request to determine whether some latent ambiguity exists, the undersigned concludes that (the law) clearly and unambiguously requires school boards and superintendents — not charter school operators — to ‘establish or assign’ SSOs (safe-school officers), with the assistance of local law enforcement agencies, to every public school within their respective jurisdictions, including charter schools,” Van Laningham wrote.
The judge indicated the ruling was the first of its kind, describing the dispute as a “first-impression question of statewide interest,” as schools and districts try to comply with the post-Parkland requirements.
Charter schools are public schools that often are operated by private entities. The dispute about safe-school officers comes amid broader clashes across the state about the interplay between school boards and charter schools.
The 2018 law required placing safe-school officers at all public schools. That can include using law-enforcement officers or “guardians,” who are trained school personnel allowed to carry guns. Palm Beach County does not use guardians, according to Van Laningham’s ruling.
Renaissance requested in March 2018 that the School Board provide a full-time safety officer at each of Renaissance’s charter schools, but the board denied the request. The board also later declined a request to mediate the issue, which ultimately led to the dispute going before Van Laningham, the ruling said.
“There is no dispute in this case that, under the safety act, one or more SSOs must be assigned to each charter school facility in the district, including RCS’s (Renaissance’s) six schools,” the judge wrote. “The question is, whose duty is it to assign SSOs to charter schools? The board’s answer, clearly expressed in word and deed, is this: It’s not our job; rather, the obligation falls to each charter school to arrange police protection for its own campus, as though each charter school were a school district unto itself.”
Van Laningham said he was not deciding issues such as who is required to pay for the officers.
“While disputes concerning this financial obligation might someday be ripe for adjudication, the narrower question of law … is, simply, who must satisfy the duty to ‘establish or assign’ SSOs at charter schools,” he wrote. “The plain and obvious answer to this pivotal question is: the district school board and district superintendent.”
The Marjory Stoneman High School Public Safety Commission wants lawmakers to require Florida’s sheriffs to train public school staffers to carry a gun on campus.
The commission voted unanimously on Thursday to recommend the change to a guardian program that was named after the Stoneman Douglas coach, Aaron Feis, who died protecting students. The program provides law enforcement training to public school staffers, excluding teachers, who want to carry a gun on campus, but current law does not require sheriff’s offices to participate.
So far, only 25 of 67 school districts are participating in the program, according to the Florida Department of Education, and only $9.3 million of the $67 million lawmakers appropriated for the program has been spent.
Charter school officials struggling to comply with the new campus safety mandates are hoping the program will be expanded. Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, applauded the recommendation.
“We are pleased that the commission understands the challenges public schools face when trying to meet the safe school mandates,” she said.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who is a member of the commission, proposed the requirement.
“We need to tell the sheriffs, ‘Do your job,’” he said. “A majority of those sheriffs want to do the Guardian program but fear the Guardian program because of insurance companies.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the commission, agreed. “We need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” he said. “We have to come up with a way to allow these districts that want to do it to get around the sheriff where the sheriff won’t do it.”
After the Parkland shooting in February, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law legislation increasing security measures at schools. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act requires all public schools to hire a school resource officer (SRO), a sheriff’s deputy, or a trained employee to carry a gun on campus.
However, many charter schools, which receive less money than traditional public schools according to a 2017 Florida TaxWatch study, can’t afford SROs. Finances are not the only obstacle. In many areas, there simply are not enough officers to meet the needs of each school.
State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said thorough training is paramount. “We want to make sure that training is what it is supposed to be,” she said. “What we want it to be. Anything else would be a recipe for a problem.”
Florida charter school officials struggling to comply with the state’s new campus safety mandates are hoping lawmakers can help: Expand access to the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program by requiring all county sheriffs to participate in training armed school personnel.
After the Parkland shooting in February, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law legislation increasing security measures at schools. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act requires all public schools to hire a school resource officer (SRO), a sheriff’s deputy or trained employee to carry a gun on campus.
However, many charter schools (which receive less in revenue than traditional public schools, according to a study from Florida TaxWatch) can’t afford SROs. Finances are not the only obstacle. In many areas, there simply are not enough officers to meet the needs at each school.
The law created a cheaper alternative to SROs: the Guardian program, named after the Stoneman Douglas coach who died protecting students. It provides law enforcement training to public school staffers, excluding teachers, who want to carry a gun on campus. Both the school districts and the sheriff’s offices must agree to participate in the program.
So far, though, only 25 out of 67 school districts are participating in the Guardian program, according to the Florida Department of Education, despite the fact the state appropriated $67 million to fund it.
Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, said her organization would like to see all the sheriff’s offices participating in the Guardian program.
“This would help all schools – whether charter or district-run — to comply with the state mandate,” she said. “We need to make sure there are personnel available to hire for the security positions on campuses,”
Senator-elect Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said he believes charter schools should be afforded greater opportunity to participate in the Guardian program.
He suggested one solution would be allowing personnel to be trained in other counties that have a Guardian program.
“That would probably be the best compromise where we are not forcing a sheriff to have a program,” he said. “I don’t see a reason we couldn’t have a Guardian certification program statewide.”
Osvaldo Garcia is principal at Passport Charter School in Orange County, where the school board chose not to participate in the Guardian program. He said he is not able to afford a full-time SRO at a cost of $50 an hour when the school was given only a little over $9,000 to hire one.
As a result, Garcia is sharing an SRO with 13 other schools, meaning the officer is not at the school on a full-time basis.
“If we had (an officer) on a daily basis it would be a struggle for us,” Garcia said of the costs of affording such a position. He said 41 other charter schools in Orange County are encountering similar issues.
Garcia said the Guardian program could help alleviate his situation, but that he also had concerns.
“How prepared are these people legitimately to have a handle on a difficult situation?” he asked. “They are not trained police officers who go through so many hours of training.”
Meanwhile, in Duval County, the sheriff’s office and school district are participating in the Guardian program.
Even so, Simaran Bakshi, principal at Wayman Academy of the Arts, a charter school serving 281 students in Jacksonville, said she is finding it difficult to find employees who are interested in applying for the program.
With the program requiring 170 hours of training, staff is expected to be absent a month, which is also a burden, she added.
Bakshi said she currently has an SRO at the school based on an affordable rate negotiated between the school district and sheriff’s office. But that rate will soon expire, leaving her paying more than $35 an hour for an SRO — an amount she can’t afford.
Ralph Arza, director of government relations for the Florida Charter School Alliance, said while it seems unlikely lawmakers will change the law to mandate sheriff’s offices participate in the program, there could be another compromise.
He said if charter schools could hire a trained, licensed armed guard, which is not applicable under the law, that could provide an affordable option.
Officials from Jewish schools in Florida said Monday they are remaining vigilant after a gunman killed 11 people Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Rabbi Chaim Friedman, director of development for Yeshiva Elementary School in Miami Beach, said he is always looking at ways to upgrade security at his school, which serves 500 students. (About half use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students). “We are worried about the future,” he said.
In recent years, Yeshiva has beefed up security and now has its own armed guard.
Even before the Pittsburgh shooting, security at Jewish schools in Florida has been a statewide concern. This past spring, the Florida Legislature approved $2 million in security funding for 46 Jewish day schools. Unfortunately for Yeshiva, that appropriation did not cover the hiring of security personnel. The Florida Board of Education has requested another $2 million for Jewish day schools for the 2019 session.
As the nation’s first private school scholarship for bullied students shifts into higher gear, a new study finds that private schools are more likely than public schools to offer safer learning environments.
Private schools are far less likely to report problems such as physical conflicts, robbery, drug abuse, possession of illegal weapons, and bullying, according to researchers Danish Shakeel and Corey DeAngelis, in a recently published report in the Journal of School Choice.
The researchers examined responses to the national School and Staffing Survey from both public and private schools, including self-reported safety practices, and occurrence of problems and crime. Even when controlling for school-level characteristics, private schools came out ahead.