Government schools in Jacksonville were raked over the coals by the statewide grand jury for the way they have reported school safety incidents.
Eye on Jacksonville has reported the anomalies in the reporting several times, after examining figures reported to the state Dept. of Education from the Duval County Public School system.
In its final report, the statewide grand jury investigating school safety after the Parkland school shootings in Broward County pointed to Duval as an example.
It was an aside to the main point made by a separate commission that Broward schools did a poor job of protecting schoolchildren, but it was significant.
Schools are supposed to report incidents to the state and also to the police in some cases.
In an effort to make the system look better, the local school police – separate from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office – misreported incidents in the schools. The grand jury blamed the head of the police force, who resigned and has not been charged to date with breaking the law.
Two things can be inferred from the findings. One is that the city would be better served if the policing of schools was returned to the sheriff’s office, where an elected official could be held accountable.
The second is that the coming election could result in a situation where a husband and wife are in charge of the two police agencies.
Lakesha Burton is running for sheriff. Her husband has been the chief of the school police since the resignation of the former chief. One family would be in control of both agencies if Burton were elected sheriff, and one would not be accountable to voters.
In interim reports, the statewide grand jury had noted “significant and extensive problems” with the reporting of incidents to the School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting system of the state.
“We have heard real-time, recent examples of incidents such as gang fights, sexual molestation and attacks on school personnel which are wholly omitted from the data districts forward to the FDOE, whether by negligence, incompetence-or, alarmingly, by design.”
School police in Duval failed to report crimes such as extortion or stalking, and seriously undercounted gang activity, leading the grand jurors to say, “No one is made safer by this chicanery.”
Faulty reporting can cause authorities to pass over or minimize threats, which was the case with the accused shooter at Parkland.
The grand jury also said, “We encourage the citizens of Duval County… to review that report and determine whether, even without additional criminal charges, a more thorough housecleaning might be in order. We certainly believe that to be the case.”
Other districts also have misreported data, the grand jury said, but it singled out Duval County. It said in a separate presentment in January 2021 that former Chief Michael P. Edwards had “actually issued both written and verbal orders to the members of his department to intentionally mislabel and fail to report crimes.”
The actions or inactions by Edwards were facilitated by the school administration, which prepared and issued a series of “cheat sheets” listing offenses and instructions as to whether incidents would be reported to the police. The school superintendent told the grand jury she deferred to the police chief in such matters.
Edwards escaped indictment by “a quirk in the law,” the grand jury said. Eye reported in April 2019 that Duval had the highest number of total incidents in the state, and also noted: “Another data point of concern is that in 2016 Duval County Public Schools had the lowest rate in the state for reporting fights to the police.”
Other facets of the school safety reports were covered in later articles in 2019 and 2020. One of those focused on the continuing failure to report serious incidents to the police, which was a major concern to the grand jury.