School starts in Broward County. Do 29 charter schools still not have armed guards?

A new school year began Wednesday in Broward County, yet about a third of the county’s charter schools are still out of compliance with a law that calls for an armed guard at every school.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri opened the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission meeting in Sunrise on Wednesday with news that 29 out of the 89 charter schools in Broward County still do not have trained armed guardians or long-term agreements with local law enforcement to provide officers. That law was passed by the Legislature less than a month after the Parkland school shooting that killed 17 and injured 17 more on Valentine’s Day 2018.

Gualtieri called on the Broward County School Board to revoke the contracts of the charter schools that are out of compliance and said he would ask Superintendent Robert Runcie about those charters during Runcie’s scheduled testimony Thursday. Gualtieri said those schools were without sustained coverage all of last school year, too.

“So what that tells me is they don’t give a damn. They don’t care.” Gualtieri said. “They’re going to do whatever they want because they want, and they’re used to being defiant and just flying their own way and it’s ridiculous. They need to be held accountable for it.”

Later, a state official muddied the picture by saying he had information to the contrary.

The commission was created by the Legislature to assess the factors and events leading up to, during and following the Parkland school shooting. School districts’ compliance with new school safety measures has been a focal point for the commission.

Charter schools, which have their own sovereign school boards, bear the responsibility of being in compliance with the law. They can reach out to their sheriff or a sheriff in another county to train guardians, who are armed school employees, by dipping into $52 million left in state funding allocated toward that program. Another option, often more desirable but expensive, is to pay out of pocket for a law enforcement officer.

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony said he learned from his command staff Friday that 12 charter schools outside of the sheriff’s jurisdiction did not have armed guards in place. He said he had to reach out to municipal police chiefs to start the conversation with the charter schools in their cities.

“Here we are at the very late hour right before school starts where I’m on the phone on the weekend with my command staff starting to communicate with chiefs of police, school board officials, and trying to tap into charter schools,” he said.

Tony first said his deputies will only cover those schools until Friday but later said he would give charter schools a deadline to comply. He said he wasn’t aware the figure given by the Broward County school district to Gualtieri was actually 29 charter schools out of compliance. That figure has fluctuated.

“If Sheriff Tony is stepping out and bailing them out of their legal obligations ... then I’m almost creating a violation of the law in which I’m supposed to be enforcing,” Tony said of himself. “It’s not fair to my men, it’s not fair to this community, and it’s not fair to the kids who are falling victim to what I’ve referred to as politics.”

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a member on the commission, called for a list of charter schools out of compliance and any disciplinary actions taken against those schools.

Gualtieri said the Broward Sheriff’s Office wrapped up its last guardian training two weeks ago. He said there were eight participants in a class with a capacity of 40. Tony said he expanded the class to accommodate more participants.

Tony also pointed out another requirement charter schools had trouble abiding by: Schools are required to involve law enforcement in their drills and threat assessments.

Instead, Tony said, there were two instances when charter schools called officers off the street and not designated officers, as the law calls for. He said some charter schools also contacted law enforcement after the fact to sign off on threat assessments.

Commission members grew angry. Max Schachter, who lost his son Alex in the shooting, pointed out that a thorough threat assessment at Stoneman Douglas High School might have stopped the shooting.

“You would think they would have gotten their sh-t together,” he said.

Commission members became more confused and frustrated when Damien Kelly, the director of the Office of Safe Schools at the Florida Department of Education, said all 29 schools mentioned as not having an armed guard in fact claimed that they were, in fact, in compliance.

“For whatever reason the school district doesn’t seem to have that information,” Kelly said. “We’ve not received all of the documentation.”

Kelly said schools everywhere else throughout the state were reported to be in compliance.

Judd suggested that representatives from all 29 of those schools should provide proof of a contract with an armed guard or with a municipality proving sustained coverage and a photo of their armed guard on campus during school hours.

Commission member Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was also among those killed at Stoneman Douglas, called on Runcie to take responsibility as superintendent.

“I guess I’m not surprised that the nexus of confusion is the Broward County school district,” he said. “If they can’t produce a contract or evidence, a selfie, something, with the safe school officer at those charter schools, then he ought to as the leader of the district revoke their charters.”

“Or resign,” Judd said.

Gualtieri also went over school safety compliance measures for Broward’s neighboring school districts, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

Gualtieri said he reached out to Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez, who is hosting a training in September for armed guardians in charter schools. Traditional public schools in Miami-Dade County are currently staffed with either Miami-Dade Schools Police officers or officers from local jurisdictions, including Miami-Dade Police.

Perez told the Miami Herald that a few smaller independent charter schools are struggling to pay for off-duty law enforcement. Some charter schools sent guardians to Pinellas and Broward counties for guardian training.

”I don’t see too many going guardian all the way,” Perez said.

Gualtieri also asked Perez about charter schools’ compliance with including law enforcement officers in drills and threat assessment teams. He said Perez has reached out to municipal police chiefs and ensured compliance.

“I think the situation in Miami-Dade County is well on the path,” Gualtieri said. “They have a plan they are putting it together. There is coverage. I don’t have much concern right now in Miami-Dade County.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony.