Following a wave of bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the country, Florida lawmakers have taken unprecedented action to bolster security at Jewish schools in the state.
Legislators — both Republicans and Democrats — were eager to comply with a request to help secure Jewish schools following months of news reports showing children and adults evacuating from schools and other places in response to threats in Florida and other states.
But the $654,000 line-item in the budget has raised some questions about government dollars earmarked to help schools serving just one religion.
Kara Gross, ACLU of Florida’s legislative counsel, told the Miami Herald that while responding to violent threats made against religious minorities is extremely important, the budget item raises constitutional questions.
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“The fact that the funding singles out one religion raises serious concerns about unconstitutional discrimination, whether intentional or not,” she said in a written statement. “Many groups are seeing a spike in violent threats in recent months — not only Jews, but also Muslims, Sikhs and immigrants. If the state sees responding to these threats as a priority public safety issue, funding should be available to all similarly targeted groups.”
It’s unknown if the ACLU plans to pursue any action because it doesn’t typically comment on hypothetical future litigation.
Florida’s budget allocation appears to be unusual. The Orthodox Union — an Orthodox Jewish group that helped draft the budget request through an affiliated project called Teach Florida — has championed similar legislation in other states this year, but those bills would make funding available to other types of private schools as well. Legislation the group helped draft in Maryland, for example, would make security funding available to schools and child care centers deemed at risk of hate crimes or attacks.
Teach Florida’s executive director Mimi Jankovits said the goal in Florida is to expand security money to other private schools in future years, but said it was limited to Jewish schools this year because of the rise in security threats.
“We had an immediate need we wanted to address,” she said. Although the Orthodox Union sought the money in Florida, it will be available to K-12 Jewish schools of any Jewish denomination.
In the $82.4 billion state budget that passed Monday, the Legislature earmarked roughly $654,000 for video cameras, fences, bullet-proof glass, alarm systems and other equipment at Jewish schools in nine counties, including Miami-Dade and Broward. The funding marks the first time the state has allocated security funds to Jewish schools, according to supporters of the project.
“There’s been a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism over the last year,” said Brevard County state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who sponsored the project in the House. “Schools have had to close and parents are afraid for the safety of their kids, so this money would be used to do security upgrades to make those parents feel more secure and make those kids safer.”
It has yet to be determined how the money will be divvied up, but the funds will be used to protect thousands of students at Jewish schools in counties that could include Palm Beach, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Volusia, Lee and Orange, according to funding requests filed with the House and Senate. The project sponsors who made those requests — Fine and former Miami Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles — initially asked for $1.5 million, and although they got less than half that, supporters said it wasn’t hard to convince legislators that the funding was needed.
167 The number of bomb threats against Jewish institutions in the U.S. and Canada between Jan. 1 and March 21, 2017
“With anything now you have to prove a return on investment, but I think our appropriations chair [Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater] and the Senate president [Joe Negron, R-Stuart] were very, very supportive in ensuring children in our communities were kept safe,” said state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who helped champion the funding request.
The funding still has to be approved by Gov. Rick Scott, who has yet to sign off on the Legislature’s budget. Scott has the power to veto the entire budget or reject specific projects he disagrees with.
Book’s Broward County district includes the David Posnack Jewish Day School in Davie which has been the target of recent bomb threats.
“I was in communication with students and families at Posnack, and it is such a terrifying situation to not know what’s going on for the students, so I was just very proud and glad to be able to provide that safety and peace of mind for our community,” she said.
Similar money should be also assigned to any other school or religious organization who has been the victim of similar threats or crimes.
Wilfredo Ruiz, CAIR Florida’s communications director
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida said they were surprised to learn of the state funding specifically allocated to Jewish schools.
“We are glad that the government has assigned monies to the Jewish organizations and schools to enhance their safety and security,” said Wilfredo Ruiz, CAIR Florida’s communications director. “Similar money should be also assigned to any other school or religious organization who has been the victim of similar threats or crimes.”
Ruiz said CAIR Florida has received reports of threats and vandalism targeting numerous Islamic centers and schools in recent years. “They deserve the state protection,” he said. “That’s part of the government’s duty to protect their citizens and institutions.”
The push for more security at Jewish institutions comes amid a wave of bomb threats at schools and other places nationwide including in South Florida.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been more than 160 bomb threats to Jewish institutions in the U.S. and Canada in 2017, including the David Posnack Jewish Day School.
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice charged an 18-year-old who holds dual citizenship in the United states and Israel in connection to many of the bomb threats faced by Jewish institutions this year. The criminal complaint states that Michael Ron David Kadar made at least 245 threatening telephone calls involving bomb threats and active shooter threats targeting JCCs, schools and other Jewish institutions including some in Florida. Kadar was arrested in Israel in March.
Herald/Times staff writer Kristen Clark contributed.