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Questions raised about Manatee schools' security procedures

BRADENTON -- School board members are disagreeing with the board’s attorney and raising doubts about whether district officials have adhered to a state law involving children’s safety and security.

Board member Karen Carpenter is concerned about a finding from the state auditor general in Manatee County’s recent operational audit that says the district needs to enhance procedures to ensure contractors’ background checks are done.

“I was not particularly happy,” Carpenter said at a recent meeting. “I don’t take children’s safety lightly.”

The finding’s history is rooted in the Jessica Lunsford Act.

Lunsford was the 9-year-old third grader from Homosassa who was killed in 2005 by convicted sex offender John Couey, who worked at Lunsford’s school as a contractor. Background screenings were not done then on everyone who worked near students. New legislation made fingerprinting and background screening a requirement in Florida’s 67 school districts.

Board attorney John Bowen told Carpenter and other board members that Manatee County’s school district has complied with the Jessica Lunsford Act. He said auditors and Manatee school officials disagree on the interpretation of the act.

“I challenge that auditor to show where it says we have to do it (background screenings on contractors),” Bowen said.

Carpenter replied, “I respectfully disagree with you, Mr. Bowen. What the auditor says does mean something.”

Bowen later explained that he believes the act is “poorly worded.”

“We recommend anybody contracting with us to collect background screenings,” he said. “It’s their responsibility.”

It’s the second time Manatee County has received an audit citation for not ensuring background screenings were being completed.

In the 2008 audit, it states, “Our review disclosed contractual personnel, such as construction personnel, subcontractors and day laborers hired by subcontractors were permitted access on school grounds when students were present without undergoing the required background screenings.”

Failure to conduct screenings “increases risk” and “exposes the district to potential litigation,” the audit said.

The 2010 audit says the district screened contractor personnel for sexual offenses, but did not provide “required screening.”

“Required screening is a state and national fingerprint-based check of federal criminal history information conducted through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation,” the report says.

Manatee is one of only three schools districts cited for not adequately performing fingerprinting and background screenings. To that, Carpenter said, she was embarrassed.

School board member Julie Aranibar says board members are unanimous in believing the district needs to enforce the screening procedures. She believes Bowen’s interpretation of the law is lacking.

“I believe in the Florida statutes. We are sworn to uphold the Constitution,” Aranibar said.

Superintendent Tim McGonegal said board members want district administrators to review the issue.

As a result, administrators are collecting data for a workshop scheduled for Feb. 9.

“I think there may have been some misunderstanding of what is and is not happening,” board Chairman Robert Gause said. “Every board member wants to make sure our kids are safe.”

Gause said the Feb. 9 workshop will “make sure everybody’s on the same page and that the board makes a decision for moving forward together.”