By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Florida’s deadliest school shooting, Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate whether school districts are complying with mandatory safety measures designed to protect students.
DeSantis made the announcement Wednesday, flanked by family members of the 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and staff gunned down last Valentine’s Day. Seventeen other people were injured in the massacre, which the governor called “one of the worst days that we’ve had in the history of Florida.”
The statewide grand jury “is something that is real,” DeSantis said at a news conference inside the Broward County courthouse.
“This is something that is very serious,” the governor said. “Whatever recommendations they have for us, we’re going to heed that.”
Since taking office last month, DeSantis has taken a number of high-profile actions to address the horrific Parkland shooting.
On his first week on the job, DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, accusing the law enforcement official of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” related to the shooting. Israel is appealing the suspension, but a recently released report by a state commission found fault with the sheriff’s office’s handling of the attack by confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school with a long history of mental health problems.
Angry parents and other critics — including Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was among the slain students — also called on DeSantis to oust Broward County Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie. But the governor said he does not have the authority to remove the schools chief because Runcie is an appointed official.
DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, called a statewide grand jury “the best tool that we have” to explore possible wrongdoing by school districts throughout the state. The probe will be at least the third statewide investigation into the Parkland shooting, which is also the subject of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement inquiry.
The governor asked the statewide grand jury to explore “whether refusal or failure to follow the mandates of school-related safety laws … results in unnecessary and avoidable risk to students across the state;” whether public officials committed — and continue to commit — fraud and deceit” by accepting state money conditioned on implementation of certain safety measures; whether public officials committed fraud by “mismanaging, failing to use, and diverting funds from multi-million-dollar bonds specifically solicited for school safety initiatives;” and whether school officials violated state law by “systematically underreporting incidents of criminal activity” to the state Department of Education.
The Sun-Sentinel recently reported that Broward County school district turned down an opportunity to levy $55 million in tax dollars for school safety in 2013.
Lawmakers last year created the state commission, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which spent months investigating the shooting and issued a report last month.
But DeSantis said Wednesday that, unlike that commission, the grand-jury investigation won’t be limited to Broward County or the events surrounding the mass shooting.
“It is multi-jurisdictional. But I think it’s something that is warranted. I think it’s something that may lead to potential accountability measures by a grand jury. But it could also lead to, and I think it will, lead to recommendations about what some of the various school districts could do better. They can provide information to the state of Florida, and we can then take action,” he told reporters.
Having a “broader mandate will be better for us in terms of getting the truth, holding people accountable and then making sure we’re going forward in a posture that is most conducive to public safety,” the governor said.
As the state gears up for the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting, DeSantis also traveled Wednesday to Brevard County to announce an executive order related to other school-safety issues.
On Thursday, a series of events, including prayer vigils, will take place throughout the state. Broward schools are planning a series of ways to commemorate the tragic anniversary, including “A Day of Service and Love” at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
“It will be a day to give back to the community in honor of MSD’s 17 fallen eagles, the students and staff who were lost one year ago,” the Broward County School Board said in a press release highlighting some of the Feb. 14 events.
The governor and his wife, Casey, are scheduled to take part in a moment of silence for the Parkland victims in the Capitol courtyard at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Pollack, who joined DeSantis at the both of Wednesday’s news conferences, said he and others whose children or spouses were killed don’t need a reminder of what occurred a year ago.
“As everyone knows, that year anniversary’s coming up, but I wanted everybody to know that I don’t need Feb. 14 to know that that’s the day my daughter was murdered, ‘cause I live it every day,” Pollack said at the Brevard County event.
The executive order DeSantis issued Wednesday in Brevard County followed up on some of the recommendations made by the state commission.
He ordered the state Department of Education to give sheriffs another chance to ask for money to carry out the school “guardian” program, which allows certain school personnel to be armed. Many counties have declined to take part in the program, leaving money unspent.
The executive order, among other things, also requires the education department to conduct an audit of all school districts to identify school-based discipline diversion programs, such as the controversial “PROMISE” program used in Broward, “to ensure that dangerous individuals don’t slip through the cracks.”