From rapes to arsons to guns, 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.
Many serious offenses — and even minor ones — are never reported to the state as required, an investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel found. A staggering number of schools report no incidents at all — no bullying, no trespassing, nothing.
The state largely takes the districts at their word, and state law provides no penalties for administrators who allow the lies to continue. Several districts pledged to change their ways only when confronted by journalists.
No one told the state after a registered sex offender trespassed at the Deane Bozeman School in Panama City in 2016. Or that police charged a woman in 2014 with trying to choke and kidnap a student at Eccleston Elementary in Orlando. Or that a drunk Tampa Bay man brought a Glock pistol to a Seminole High football game in 2015 and threatened to shoot a teacher.
Even murder has been ignored. A student at Coral Gables Senior High got a 40-year prison sentence for a fatal stabbing in 2009, a case that attracted national attention, but the Miami-Dade County school district never reported it to the state.
The Parkland school is rated as one of the state’s safest, but school officials had failed to record more than two dozen cases of trespassing, burglary and physical attacks over the previous three years. The district reported the offenses to sheriff’s deputies, but they were omitted from reports filed with the state.
Now the Sun Sentinel has found that school districts from South Florida to the west coast to the Panhandle are concealing similar crimes. The newspaper’s investigation found:
— Crimes such as teachers sexually abusing students have been withheld simply because they weren’t committed by students, an omission that violates state law and masks problems.
— On average, more than 600 schools — one in five — fail to report to the state each year, suggesting that nothing whatsoever went wrong there.
— Many schools, seeking to protect their reputations, continue to file false information even after the state warns them against it.
Some members of a commission investigating the Parkland shooting believe failure to report crime is one reason why Stoneman Douglas was unprepared for the attack in February. Fudging crime reports could open the door to another tragedy if problems go ignored, they say.
“If you’re having a problem at a school, it doesn’t get solved by painting a rosy picture and saying that it’s something other than what it is,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission. “In fact, it just makes the problem worse. It exacerbates it because you’re not solving it.”
The Sun Sentinel analyzed 27,000 crime reports that Florida schools submitted to the Department of Education over the past 10 years. The newspaper then reviewed crime logs, police reports, school records and news coverage to identify discrepancies.
The analysis showed that false reports are rife across Florida.
— Addison Mizner Elementary in Boca Raton sent no reports to the state for the 2015-16 or 2016-17 school years — not even after a 7-year-old boy with autism reported that two classmates forced him into sex acts on the playground in November 2015.
Police and child welfare officials investigated, and the school district paid $185,000 to settle a lawsuit from the boy’s family, who claimed the district had failed to properly supervise the students.
Why it wasn’t reported to the state is unclear. “It may have been determined at the time of the incident that it did not rise to the level of a sexual offense,” said district spokeswoman Amity Schuyler.
— Miami-Dade schools hid repeated instances of strangers strolling onto campus during the 2016-17 school year, an indication that a campus is vulnerable to attack. School police were called four times at Kinloch Park Elementary, three times at Kinloch Park Middle and four times at Citrus Grove Middle, according to police logs.
Yet state records suggest that no one trespassed at any of the schools that year. The school district cited computer errors for those and other omissions.
— Taylor Ranch Elementary in Sarasota County hasn’t completed a state safety report for more than five years, despite two fugitives with weapons trespassing on campus in May 2014.
The West Virginia couple arrived at the campus playground in a stolen minivan after eluding police in a high-speed chase. One of the suspects was carrying plastic knuckles with spikes, the other a folding knife.
School district spokeswoman Kelsey Whealey falsely claimed that only bullying and harassment must be reported to the state, not trespassing. She referred additional questions to the state Board of Education.
— At Parker Elementary in Panama City, a 12-year-old boy stole a school bus in July 2014 and went on a two-hour joyride, just hours after he had appeared in court for another bus theft. The theft was never reported to the state. The school district did not respond to requests for comment.
School districts have been required to file annual reports since 1995 to help schools, districts and the state “assess the extent and nature of problems in school safety,” according to Department of Education guidelines.
Parents and businesses also use the data to decide where to locate, but the information is useless if it’s untrue.
“Parents don’t know what they don’t know, and nobody is rushing to tell them,” said Kenneth Trump, who heads National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm based in Ohio. “The only way we can identify patterns and trends of school violence, and then develop targeted prevention and intervention strategies, is to first identify the problem with accurate and honest data.”
The false reporting alarms Eric Edwards, whose children attend Parkland schools. His daughter, Amanda, was in a classroom where shots were fired at Stoneman Douglas, but she was not injured.
“As a parent … who has suffered the effects of an MSD administration that didn’t take student security seriously, while fudging its numbers to give the appearance that the opposite was true, the results can be devastating,” he said, adding that changes must be made to ensure schools are more honest.
State guidelines are clear on what should be reported. In addition to serious crimes like murder, rape and robbery, it’s supposed to include minor incidents that wouldn’t bring police, such as possession of tobacco, fighting and bullying.
If a school’s numbers seem out of whack — if they don’t match discipline reports or crime patterns — the state will audit the reports, but many districts ignore the findings.
Schools often insist they need to report only behavior by students, not employees or strangers — even after the state tells them differently.
In Orange County, for example, the district never reported a kidnapping case from December 2014 because the offender was a parent, a spokeswoman said. A break-in at Hunters Creek Elementary in Orlando in November 2016 was never reported because it involved former students.
“In both incidents that you’re asking about, the offenders were not students, therefore they do not show up,” said Wendy Roundtree, a spokeswoman for Orange County schools. “These cases were handled by law enforcement.”
The omissions flouted instructions the Department of Education gave Orange schools in every yearly audit since at least 2009. “Incidents are reported … whether the offenders are students, non-students or if the offender is unknown,” the audits stated.
Hillsborough County ignored repeated audits that advised, “Please be certain that incidents involving teachers/staff who were arrested for on-campus offenses are included.”
Despite the warning, LaVoy Exceptional Center School in Tampa reported no sex crimes during the 2016-17 school year, the same year teacher George Summers molested a disabled teenage student. He’s now a registered sex offender.
Schools spokeswoman Tanya Arja said the district reported the crime to police, but annual safety reports list only incidents in which students are disciplined. Arja said she would ask the state to clarify, ignoring that the state had already made it clear many times before.
A 2016 state audit in 2016 questioned the accuracy of Hillsborough’s reports after two elementary schools reported nothing on their safety reports, ignoring 34 times when students misbehaved so badly they were suspended from school.
Responding to journalists
Escambia County, in the Panhandle, was one of several districts that pledged to be more thorough after the Sun Sentinel questioned inaccurate reports.
Escambia never told the state when teacher Sharon Jones was arrested after hitting a child with autism in March 2017 at Warrington Elementary in Pensacola.
“In light of your inquiry, it is clear we need to revise our practices, and we will do so immediately,” said Carrie Hollon, an administrative specialist in the district.
Pinellas County admitted it made the same error when it failed to document a gun brought to a high school football game in Seminole and four incidents of trespassing at Dixie Hollins High. And Palm Beach County promised to correct problems after it left off seven cases of trespassing at Lake Worth High School.
“School administrators have been reminded to also enter incidents involving non-students,” said Schuyler, the school district spokeswoman.
Broward County failed to report two cases of trespassing at Cooper City High during the 2016-17 school year. In one, two boys were found hiding in a girls’ restroom shortly after midnight. The other involved a 32-year-old man caught roaming on campus during the school day.
Schools spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan blamed “lack of knowledge on how to report events involving individuals not enrolled at the school.”
“The district has addressed this issue through additional training to ensure proper reporting,” Brennan said,
It’s easy for school districts to keep crimes out of public view because of state and federal laws that protect student privacy. Discipline records are exempt from public disclosure, and state law prohibits police from releasing the names of juveniles in criminal reports.
While most agencies will release reports with the names omitted, some, including the Miami-Dade School Police department, use the state law as a way to keep from turning over reports about anything except the most serious crimes.
“The fact that juveniles remain anonymous and their identity is protected means the numbers can be cooked or tampered with,” said Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor in Atlanta and TV talk show host who has studied issues of under-reporting for her website, Crime Online.
Miami-Dade schools did release a felony arrest report when a student was charged with arson in September 2015 for setting a trash can on fire at Miami Palmetto Senior High. But the crime disappeared when the school turned in its crime data to the state.
The school district blames its computer systems, not its employees. Miami-Dade Schools uses several systems to retrieve incidents to be reported, and they don’t interact perfectly, leading to some data errors, spokesman John Schuster said.
“As the number of police officers and school personnel has grown, we have recognized that there are discrepancies across the data systems,” Schuster said. “The district has been working with the different groups to streamline the data collection processes. Unfortunately, this cannot be done for historical data but only for data moving forward.”
Audrey Walden, of the Florida Education Department, said it’s up to school officials to certify that the data they submit is accurate. She downplays the idea that schools intentionally omit crimes.
“Generally, data are consistent and reported in good faith. When we do find anomalies, they are often remedied with training or technical assistance,” she said.
But schools have good reason to keep crime under wraps. Although campus crime is not considered when determining government funding, the public relations benefit is valuable on its own. Schools want to appeal to parents and businesses searching for neighborhoods, and administrators want to impress their bosses, experts say.
“Just like many cities under-report hate crimes because they don’t want to be the city with the most, schools and school boards don’t want their schools to be seen as unsafe,” said Kendrick Meek, a former U.S. congressman who served on a state committee studying school safety issues after the Columbine massacre.
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie acknowledged as much in an interview Friday. Some administrators have shaved their numbers because “they felt it would weigh negatively on how they are perceived” if crime appears too high, he said.
Runcie announced in June that he had instructed administrators to document all incidents properly. The district auditor will review the reports.
“We’ve been working on making it very clear all incidents need to be tracked and they need to be reported,” Runcie said Friday. “There will be serious consequences for administrators that fail to comply. It’s going to take some work to change the culture and make sure we’re capturing the reality of what’s happening.”
Walden said it’s understandable that some schools don’t file reports at all, particularly elementary schools.
“Considering many incidents are crimes, many elementary schools may not have any … to report,” Walden said.
Gualtieri, the head of the Stoneman Douglas commission, is skeptical.
“It’s difficult to believe a school of any size in this state doesn’t have reportable incidents every year,” he said.
Gualtieri’s commission is preparing a report this month that will recommend ways to prevent tragedies like Stoneman Douglas from happening again. One possibility — a reaction to the Sun Sentinel’s report in June — is forcing school districts to accurately report school safety data to the state and then giving the Department of Education power to enforce state law.
Districts that violate the law could be fined while school officials could face criminal charges or lose their educators’ licenses, under options the commission is considering. The Legislature would have to approve any changes.
Right now, Gualtieri said, the Education Department “is just a repository for information. It has no oversight authority. So when you have a school not reporting or under-reporting, there’s no accountability, and that needs to change.”