Bradenton charter school is not following state school security law, sheriff says

On paper, it seems the School District of Manatee County is safer after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which took the lives of 17 people on Feb. 14, nearly one year ago. The state recently said Manatee schools were in compliance with campus security and other requirements of a law adopted after the massacre.

That’s in apparent contrast with the system at Rowlett, a public charter school, which Sheriff Rick Wells said is not in compliance. Wells reaffirmed the conclusion on Friday after speaking with a top security official at the Florida Department of Education, shortly after the Bradenton Herald reported on Rowlett’s security arrangement.

Rowlett uses one sheriff’s deputy to rotate between its two campuses, despite a provision in state law that says each campus should have its own armed security.

The sheriff said Rowlett is among other Florida schools that may utilize the questionable practice.

“As far as DOE is concerned, they are not in compliance,” Wells said. “Rowlett is not alone in their interpretation.”

After a version of this story was published online, a message appeared Friday on the school’s website. It said Rowlett was in compliance with the new law, but it went on to say that further clarification was needed.

“Each of our campuses has an official Sheriff Deputy on campus every day,” it read. “The times vary by day. Due to the article we have reached out to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office for further clarification to ensure we are still in compliance.”

“We made the choice to contract with the Sheriff’s office instead of hiring private guardians because we wanted the highest skilled personnel on campus with a firearm,” the message continued. “Your children’s safety is our top priority, and our focus is on ensuring the children have a safe learning environment.”

The massacre at Parkland prompted new legislation, named after the school and signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott last March. The law resulted in a host of requirements on planning, staffing and campus hardening.

But it’s still unclear how Senate Bill 7026 — the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act — will affect long-term security throughout Florida, or whether every school district is fully complying with the law.

The Bradenton Herald discovered the potential violation at Rowlett Middle Academy on Thursday.

A deputy spent half the day at Rowlett Middle Academy, 400 30th Ave. W., and the remainder of his day at the school’s elementary campus, about one mile away at 3500 Ninth St. E.

Florida’s new safety law also applies to public charter schools, requiring “district school boards to establish or assign safe-school officers at each district school facility within the district.”

A gunman injured or killed 34 people in fewer than four minutes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, highlighting the need for security at every campus.

Wells said on Thursday that Florida’s law is clear: Every campus should be guarded by either a law enforcement officer or a guardian, the name for armed security guards.

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office previously warned the charter school about its practice, he said, vowing to report the school if changes weren’t made.

“If not, I will be forced to turn them in this week,” Wells said on Thursday.

On the same day, Principal Jamara Clark said he feels the school complied with new statutes. While the law requires an officer on every campus, it doesn’t specify how long the officer should be on campus each day, he said, adding that both campuses share one tax ID.

Clark also pointed to his strained budget and the cost of employing two deputies.

“With all that said, next year we are anticipating our own security,” he said. “And the law may also be updated as well, to better address that.”

Sheriff Wells said Damien Kelly, director of the DOE’s Office of Safe Schools, would contact Rowlett officials next week.

“From what I am being told, there are several charters and districts that are interpreting the law this way and they think they are in compliance and DOE is trying to make them understand,” Wells said. “I just want to make sure all our children are protected.”

School district in compliance

While school districts are required to submit their ongoing actions and results to the Florida Department of Education, some reports aren’t due for several months. Florida law also gives local and state officials the power to withhold sensitive information from the public.

“To our knowledge, Manatee County is meeting all requirements requested of them,” a DOE spokeswoman said.

Manatee received more than $5.5 million for various security upgrades in the 2018-2019 school year, and more is sure to come. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office in early January, has allocated nearly $99 million to school safety in his proposed budget of $91.3 billion.

The district currently employs 35 guardians — armed security guards without law enforcement authority — and two guardian supervisors, according to district spokesman Mike Barber.

Fifteen deputies are employed from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, while seven officers are employed from the Bradenton, Palmetto and Holmes Beach police departments.

Manatee also employs dozens of school counselors, psychologists and social workers

The new law requires law enforcement or armed security guards at every school, and it requires access to mental health care for every student. However, the law includes requirements outside of staffing and counseling.

It requires districts to form a threat assessment team at each school, conduct a security review of every school and to hold regular active shooter drills, among other measures.

Barber did not address questions, sent between Jan. 29 and Wednesday, regarding the other requirements. He said the district would hold a press conference and answer questions on Monday.

When asked if the district was fully complying with new security requirements, he said, “We are working hard to address all of the requirements and recommendations associated with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.”

Confusion over post-Parkland law

Brooks Rumenik, deputy director for the DOE’s Office of Safe Schools, presented an update to the House Education Committee on Jan. 22.

She said Florida school districts self-reported their compliance with the law.

“All school districts have indicated that they have procedures for emergency situations to include active assailant drills,” the presentation states.

“All districts reported that school-level threat assessment teams have been established,” it continues.

On the same day, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri outlined serious concerns to the Senate Committee on Education.

The sheriff also serves as chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, a group formed after the shooting in Parkland. It reviewed evidence and conducted hundreds of interviews to form statewide recommendations.

In his recent presentation, Gualtieri underscored non-compliance and lazy responses to the new law, along with a lack of authority to hold school districts accountable.

“There’s not the right sense of moving the needle fast enough and far enough,” he said. “These districts have to comply with what you all put into law, and there are a number of things that just haven’t been done.”

He underscored the issue of “assigning” officers to multiple schools and rotating them between each campus, like Rowlett did in Bradenton.

“That is intellectually dishonest,” he said. “It’s disingenuous, and it’s not complying with the spirit and intent that we have safer schools.”

And while some districts eventually complied with the need for a security assessment at every school, many were forced into compliance, Gualtieri said, adding that submissions were incomplete or even inaccurate.

He said Kelly, director of the safe schools office, had to call several districts and urge them to file a state-mandated security assessment.

“Even this year, after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, they still didn’t do it,” Gualtieri said without naming the districts.

“DOE will tell you in their presentation last week and in their statistics that everybody submitted, but it’s only because Damien Kelly is babysitting them,” he continued.

The sheriff also pointed to shortfalls at the school where 17 people died last year. At the time of his presentation, nearly one year after the shooting, Broward County Public Schools had yet to finalize its emergency procedures.

It was a lack of procedure that left students dead or injured last year, according to a report from the safety commission.

“The lack of a called Code Red on February 14, 2018 — because there was no policy, little training and no drills — left students and staff vulnerable to being shot, and some were shot because they were not notified to lockdown,” the report states.

Broward families were unaware of the district’s shortcomings until the worst had already occurred.

It’s vital, Gualtieri said, for every district to comply with the law, and for the state to hold districts accountable.

The safety commission urged “financial sanctions and removal from office” as consequences of non-compliance. It also said the DOE should be required to audit district records.

“The Office of Safe Schools shall have oversight authority, but they have no compliance authority,” he said of the state agency. “There’s no teeth to it.”

Guardians, not cops

The Manatee County School District was against hiring anyone but certified law enforcement officers after Parkland.

On Feb. 27, less than two weeks after the shooting, board members approved the spending of nearly $598,000 to temporarily hire 35 sheriff’s deputies and police officers. It was unclear how the district would pay for added security in the 2018-2019 school year, but then-Superintendent Diana Greene was adamant that law enforcement should guard Manatee schools.

In a statement on Monday, the district’s spokesman touted Manatee’s relationship with local law enforcement agencies.

“As a result of those relationships, the School District of Manatee County was one of the first — if not the first — to install armed law enforcement officers in all schools following the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last February 14,” Barber wrote.

Despite negotiations, Manatee County government refused to continue its 50-50 split of the costs for additional officers.

The state gave the school district $2.64 million for its annual security allocation, including $1.45 million for school resource officers. It wasn’t enough.

Amid a lack of funding and a shortage of deputies, the school board voted to participate in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, named after a football coach who died while protecting students in Parkland.

Guardians are trained by the sheriff’s office and hired by the school district, and they have no authority to make arrests or act as law enforcement. The armed men and women serve only to stop an active threat.

Most teachers are currently prohibited from serving as a guardian under state law, but the state’s new safety commission recommended expanding the program.

It said Florida should incorporate “teachers who volunteer — in addition to those now authorized — who are properly selected, thoroughly screened and extensively trained to carry concealed firearms on campuses.”

Sheriff Wells said the district and county will decide whether to continue with guardians, or to eventually use law enforcement as its primary security.

He was one of 25 sheriffs to form a guardian program as of late January, according to the state DOE. While the state allocated $67 million for statewide guardian programs, only $9 million was utilized by the end of August.

In an Aug. 30 memo to state senators, former Gov. Scott requested that $58 million in unused money be allocated to school districts for the hiring of law enforcement officers.

“Recently the media has reported that Legislative leadership if unwilling to bring the redirection up for consideration,” he wrote. “This is not the right decision for the safety of our children and out grandchildren.”

As expected, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission never considered Scott’s request. Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, responded to Scott in a Sept. 7 letter.

“For the Guardian Program to truly be vetted and ultimately embraced, I believe the program should maintain its own funding rather than having its funds commingled with other funds available for school safety,” he wrote.

Campus hardening

The state allocated $1.7 million to Manatee for physical improvements to its campus security, commonly known as school hardening.

“Although the $99 million in funding for school hardening will be distributed as quickly as possible, school districts should use existing funding to make any critical safety improvements immediately,” the former governor wrote in a March letter to superintendents statewide.

On Jan. 22, the school board approved up to $2.5 million in spending for the maintenance and installation of card access at district facilities. “Access control systems” allow the district to control doors, track entries and quickly lock down a facility.

The project was an “annually estimated expenditure,” according to the board agenda. It’s unclear if the district employed other forms of school hardening since Parkland, but more information could surface at Monday’s press conference.

Florida’s new safety commission advised school districts to start with free, common sense procedures, such as locked doors. It also outlined costly upgrades that could be more controversial, such as bullet-resistant glass.

“It is recommended that districts implement a tiered approach to campus hardening that begins with basic concepts that are of little or no cost, and those which may be implemented quickly,” the commission reported.

Mental health care also part of law

Tangible security is a but one component of the state’s new security law.

“Our expectation is that each student in Florida has access to a mental health professional at school by the 2018-2019 school year,” then-Gov. Scott said in a memo to school districts.

Manatee received $1.17 million to implement or improve its mental health programs, including $170,000 for charter schools.

At least 90 percent of the money is slated for “mental health assessment, diagnosis, intervention, treatment and recovery services” for at-risk students, according to the state DOE.

Currently, the district hires one counselor for every 800 elementary students, one counselor for every 500 middle school students and one counselor per grade level in the high schools, along with additional counselors for high schools with 2,500 students or more, according to the district.

Superintendent Cynthia Saunders hopes to employ 18 new elementary counselors for next year, according to Barber.

The district listed nine programs or tools in its state-mandated health plan The plan required a partnership with at least one community agency, along with programs to assist with bullying, trauma and violence, according a school board agenda from Aug. 14.

Manatee is also responsible for identifying social, emotional and behavioral health problems, along with substance abuse issues. The district is expected to refer at-risk students to outside services.

The district partnered with Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization created by families who suffered a loss during the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

It teaches staff and students how to recognize warning signs, including over-reactions, low aspirations and a fascination with firearms. The program hopes to combat social isolation by connecting at-risk students with a supportive community.

Manatee also contracted with Centerstone, formerly known as Manatee Glens. They formed a traveling group of psychologists and social workers who meet with students across the district.

“These staff will focus on counseling with students on mental health concerns and/or drug and alcohol addictions,” the plan states.

Reporting and surveillance

With help from an outside company, the state DOE plans to monitor social media for troubled students.

Florida’s DOE awarded a contract to Abacode LLC, a cybersecurity firm based in Tampa, according to a presentation to the House Education Committee.

“The system will scan social media to identify signs of bullying, self-harm, or threats of violence against students, employees, and schools,” the presentation states.

“The aforementioned monitoring should also include signs of bullying, thoughts of suicide, and other issues regarding a student’s well-being,” according to the negotiations.

SB 7026, Florida’s new safety law, also required the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to establish a reporting tool.

As a result, anyone can report potential threats against public or private schools using an application for both Android and Apple phones. Students in Parkland recommended the app’s name, FortifyFL.

Users reported 246 potential threats as of late January, according to the DOE.

Mishaps in Manatee

More than 3,600 schools throughout Florida competed for resources and staff when the new security law took effect.

Manatee schools hustled to employ the first group of 20 school guardians. They graduated from training on Aug. 16, and the school district fired one guardian about three weeks later, shortly after the Bradenton Herald reported on his social media activity.

“The photographs and screenshots depicted images charged with strong political views and some were linked to anti-government extremism and conspiracy theory beliefs,” according to a district report.

John Cinque, a former firefighter and U.S. Navy veteran, was a guardian assigned to Kinnan Elementary School. He shared conspiracies with a following of nearly 4,800 people on Facebook over the course of about one decade.

An image uploaded in 2011 depicted a a SWAT helmet with a bullet hole in its side.

“Citizens may resist unlawful arrest to the point of taking an arresting officer’s life if necessary,” the post said, misquoting an 1893 opinion from the Supreme Court of Indiana.

The school district conducted an internal investigation and faulted Cinque for listing Manatee as his employer.

“Mr. Cinque is entitled to freedom of expression through his personal media accounts” a district investigator wrote.

“Because of mixing his professional affiliation with the District onto his personal account, he should have taken precautions to distinguish between his personal views,” the investigator continued.

And to fulfill requirements on mental health, the district nearly approved a contract with Motivational Coaches of America. The now-defunct company was facing a lawsuit for unpaid wages, and allegations related to high turnover and poor care.

MCUSA offered free behavioral therapy to district students, but the company pulled its offer amid legal troubles and the ensuing media reports.

But despite the obstacles and moments of confusion, Manatee’s sheriff said area schools are more secure compared to one year ago, when a gunman took the lives of 17 people in Parkland.

“I have two children in public schools,” Wells said. “So as a parent I want to make sure all the security measures are in place at my children’s schools.”

Herald staff writer Jessica De Leon contributed to this story.

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Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.