School Board and ECSO battle over investigations and due process

By Sarah McCarten

A modest crowd gathered at the Hall Center Wednesday afternoon June 5 just around 4:30 p.m. awaiting the start of a Special Workshop, to be immediately followed by a Special Meeting. The agenda item? The Escambia County School District’s Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook—specifically any proposed amendments to the document.

Community members in attendance extended to local law enforcement, including the Sheriff himself, David Morgan.

The workshop was called to order by Escambia County School Board Chairman Jeff Bergosh at 4:30 p.m. Once the school board finally agreed on a format,
the workshop was underway.

Although it took a few moments for the board to identify whether or not they were all on the same page, as far as what version of the handbook was being referenced, they then breezed through clarifying several changes that had previously been made. This included relatively straightforward items such as defining what constitutes tardiness.

The next item of mention was in relation to a section outlining what items are considered to be serious breaches of conduct. District 4 Board member Patty Hightower raised concerns of cell phone misconduct being listed within the serious breach section.

“If the student uses the device in an inappropriate way—like the sexting kids get into—that’s a serious thing. We’re not saying you can’t have it. We’re saying you can’t use it inappropriately,” said Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas.

Although there were concerns of inconsistency with the language presented in this particular portion of the handbook, this certainly proved not to be the key issue of debate this evening. And so the meeting continued.

The board moved on to address Chapter 8, “Due Process,” for which District 3 Board member, Linda Moultrie had presented a proposed, revised statement that had circulated via email earlier in the day. This sparked conversation regarding the due process rights that are in place. Which opened up conversations as to when/at what point parents had the right to be notified when their student was facing disciplinary action.

At this point the floor opened to parents who shared sentiments and questions regarding who was standing up for the student within the district’s idea of due process.

“We have a right to know our children are being interrogated and what they are being accused of. I believe we should be contacted at the beginning, not at the conclusion of your so-called due process. We need to become a part of your procedures,” stated a concerned parent.

“Does due process mean serious offense or any offense?” questioned District 2 Board member Gerald Boone. “If it’s a serious breach of conduct, I think parents need to be notified.”

From here the conversation became one of safety, legality and constitutional rights, and around and around it went, for the remainder of the evening.

“We want to keep our children safe. We want to maintain order. We also have to protect their rights when they’re in our care. It’s a matter of where do we draw the line,” said Escambia County School Board Attorney Donna Waters.

That brought us to Section 7: “Safe Schools” and proposed language changes brought to the table by Jeff Bergosh, with the assistance of Waters—changes that would balance need for safety with student rights.

The current issue? There is no language in place demanding that the parent be contacted when their child is being interrogated, or clearly outlining whether or not and when this is in fact a right for the child in question.

Bergosh presented several options, including language used in neighboring Santa Rosa County, and it almost seemed as though there could be a simple adoption of proposed language already in place elsewhere that would achieve this balance.

During his presentation, Bergosh cited specific incidents within the county (that would later be referred to repeatedly by Thomas as well as the Sheriff’s Department as “anomalies”).

Bergosh was clear of his intent from the beginning of the evening.

“It’s a tremendous balancing act I think we have to walk—I’m looking out for young kids who don’t understand the gravity of the situation,” he said.

Young kids he explained, that in the heat of the moment, tend to incriminate themselves. Although Bergosh’s proposed language would cover students 13 years of age or younger, had exceptions and put the safety of students first, it didn’t quite cut it for law enforcement, or the Superintendent.

Then he cited Ben Franklin.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

It was then time to hear from Sheriff Morgan who (along with members of his department) had been present throughout the duration of the meeting.

“Anytime a child asks for a parent to be contacted, we [make an attempt to] contact them,” said Morgan.

Morgan’s transition into the socio-economic differences between Santa Rosa and Escambia County as justification for not being quick to adopt their language or practice, didn’t quite sit well with attendees. Morgan continued on to explain the constitutional based processes the Sheriff’s Department does in fact already follow, enlightening the room that these practices that seem to be areas of concern, are already actively being abided by in accordance to the constitution and protocol, while Thomas nodded along.

He too, closed with a Franklin quote.

“Those who won’t be counseled can’t be helped.”

The board then heard from Gerald Champagne, the Sherriff’s lawyer, who cautioned, “Don’t change for the anomalies. Anything that compromises-safety, you should think long and hard before making a change.”

Special Victims Unit representative from the Sheriff’s Department also chimed in. He too asked that they keep the policies the same, not adding language that would potentially hinder their process and possibly hurt the student or the case in investigative circumstances.

“Parent’s don’t always have the best information or the best interest of their children in mind,” he said, referring specifically to cases that involve [sexual] abuse.

“We have 40,000 students in this school district. Most of them get it right,” said Thomas. “Thank God, because otherwise we’d get overwhelmed.”

The circuitous night proved to bring about far more questions, than answers.

“Everyone wants to engage the parent, the question is, at what time?” posed Thomas.

But does everyone want to engage the parent?

Commander Dale Tharp spoke and had all of those present from the sheriff’s department pull their Miranda rights out of their pockets and wave them about—reinforcing the fact that yes, they read them, and yes, they are a part of their practice.

Seemingly one of the biggest action items of the evening, if you will, was the decision to add an additional copy of the form in the back of the handbook for students to take home to their parents, and one for the school to keep on file signed by the students, and adding an piece of language to this page notifying students (and their parents) of their rights.

And what was the actual language arrived at for this piece? After back and forth between members of the board, the community, the Sheriff’s Department, and Thomas, it was doubtful a conclusion was to ever be reached. Still Bergosh remained hopeful there was some language that could be adopted to appease all parties that would again, balance safety with protection of rights.

“And that’s why we’re at a workshop—this is beautiful,” said Bergosh.

One can only imagine he was being facetious as the clock neared 6:30 p.m. It took over two hours to arrive at well, abiding by what is state law, and the constitution.

Clearly trying to put the practices of the Sheriff’s Department down on paper into a single sentence or two that could be agreed upon so that parents and students understood rights granted to them, was harder than Bergosh, Waters and the rest of the room thought.

Slayton and other board members didn’t feel comfortable making a quick decision.

Around 6:45 p.m. a ten-minute recess was taken in another attempt to reach a decision on the language.

The meeting then reconvened with equal parts questions and answers. It was decided that there are situations where a child asks for their parents to be present, where that request may not be granted, and while in most cases the questioning could or would stop, in some cases, there were exceptions.

The verdict? Every exception can’t be codified.

At the end of the recess, all that could be agreed upon after reading language option after language option was “Law enforcement questioning of a student will be conducted in compliance with Florida State Law and the U.S. constitution.”

Hightower poignantly pointed out that the statement doesn’t get to the heart of the problem and wouldn’t help parents or students understand their rights. That was the point after all, or was it?

Clearly if there was a point, Morgan was missing it.

“What is the point here?” asks Morgan. “I’m missing it as this point.”

In the end it came down to protocols, rights and the constitution. At least that is all that the cross-eyed attendees could make out of it three hours in.

What did we end up with?

In the page specific to the law enforcement section (pages 31/32), regarding questioning practices, language was added to read, “law enforcement questioning of students will be conducted in compliance with Florida State Law and U.S. constitution.”

And as for the signature page—“The Student has the right to request that the parent/guardian be contacted during any disciplinary proceeding.”

This second statement is not to be confused with investigative questioning by law enforcement. For if there is anything we learned tonight that is, not everything can be codified but the Sherriff’s department is following protocols outlined by the constitution.

Just before 7:30 p.m. the “workshop” was adjourned and the meeting was called to order.

Unanimous voting adopted the agenda, and then adopted the proposed amendments and for these amendments to then be advertised.

In July a public forum will be held for any changes to these amended amendments to then be officially adopted.
Bergosh thanked everyone for enduring and for the “spirit of collaboration” of the evening.

Those who hung in there until the end would have said you’re welcome, that is, if they weren’t too busy stumbling out cross-eyed.