The state commission investigating the Parkland school shooting called Thursday for steps to prevent school districts from filing incomplete crime reports that paint false pictures of school security.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel disclosed in June that the Broward school district failed to report instances of violence, theft, bullying, trespassing and harassment at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, making the school appear safer than it was before the Feb. 14 massacre.
“The media found out that this was inaccurate and lies,” said Max Schachter, a member of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, whose son Alex was killed in the shooting. “If the media can find out, I know that we have the resources to find out as well.”
The commission discussed giving the Florida Department of Education authority to audit and penalize districts that underreport crime in their annual reports. Separately, the commission called on the state Legislature to require a sworn officer in every high school and elementary school, going further than state law that requires only an armed guard.
The commission, which consists of law enforcement officers, public officials and the parents of murdered students from the school, met Wednesday and Thursday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. It is required to produce its first report, with recommendations for improvements, by Jan. 1.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the commission, said the underreporting discovered in Broward is common in school districts across the state, which he blamed partly on a badly worded reporting form and a lack of state supervision.
“Right now the Department of Education has no oversight authority,” he said. “There are no consequences. I think that has to change. I think the Legislature has to give the Department of Education not only oversight authority but responsibility for ensuring that this takes away the under-reporting, takes away the individual districts’ ability not to follow what’s been prescribed.”
“If you’re having a problem in a school, it doesn’t get solved by underreporting it,” he said. “It doesn’t get solved by painting a rosy picture. It just makes the problem worse.”
Part of the problem is that there are clear incentives for underreporting crime, members of the commission said.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen said schools want to look good to parents, giving them an incentive to conceal the true level of crime.
“We all know with school choice people are going to want to send their kids to schools with good, safe and secure reputations,” he said. “And if you’re reporting a lot of crime and a lot of problems, people are going to not send their kids there.”
He blamed some of this on the state’s reporting system, which contained sufficient subjectivity to allow districts to give an incident a label such as “fighting” that wouldn’t require it to be reported.
Ryan Petty, a commission member whose daughter Alaina was killed in the attack, called for the education department to have more legal authority to check districts’ reports. Currently, the department simply accepts them.
“The quick answer is audit authority for the Department of Education,” he said. “You have to have the ability to go in and spot-check. There need to be sanctions for underreporting or misreporting of data.”
Tracy Clark, spokeswoman for the Broward school district, said in a statement emailed to the Sun-Sentinel that Superintendent Robert Runcie has reminded school leaders that “district protocols require accurate reporting of all student disciplinary infractions in the district’s official student data repositories.”
Beginning with this school year, she said, the district’s Audit Department will conduct regular audits of school disciplinary records.
At its meeting Wednesday, the commission called for a police presence that went further that what’s required by state law. They called for sworn officers to be placed at every high school and middle school in the state, while state law requires only armed personnel but not law enforcement officers.
Although they discussed requiring a police officer at elementary schools too, they voted against that idea as too expensive, requiring instead that each elementary school have at least one armed guard. Gualtieri said it would cost $400 million to put a police officer in every school, at a time when many police department are having trouble filling their ranks. This is already the case for Broward public schools.
Gualtieri said the typical pattern of school shootings, which involve handguns and assailants who already have access to the school, shows that armed guards on campus would probably do more to prevent loss of life than measures such as physically hardening school security.
During the attack on Stoneman Douglas, the killer Nikolas Cruz stopped five times to reload, showing that an armed guard might have had a chance to stop him (although the sheriff’s deputy on the scene, Scot Peterson, had done nothing to confront him.)
“There were five opportunities to mitigate the harm and kill him if there had been armed personnel in that building,” he said. “I really don’t think anyone could have done anything about the initial shots on the first floor. That happened so fast. But he went to the second floor and he went to the third floor, and he had an empty gun in that building five times.”