By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Granting a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday impaneled a statewide grand jury to investigate whether school districts are complying with mandatory safety requirements following last February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
On Feb. 13, the eve of the one-year anniversary of the state’s deadliest school shooting, DeSantis asked the court to impanel the grand jury to “make recommendations about what some of the various school districts could do better.”
Seventeen students and staff members were killed in the Parkland shooting, which DeSantis called “one of the worst days that we’ve had in the history of Florida.” Seventeen other people were injured. The massacre sparked at least three statewide investigations, and the Legislature hurriedly passed a sweeping school-safety law aimed at preventing similar tragedies.
In Monday’s order, justices unanimously decided DeSantis “has shown good and sufficient reason exists and that it is in the public interest to empanel a statewide grand jury,” which will have jurisdiction throughout Florida.
Chief Judge Jack Tuter, of the 17th Judicial Circuit in Broward County, will preside over the panel, which will meet for one year and will be comprised of jurors drawn from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, according to the order.
The grand jury will “investigate crime, return indictments, make presentments, and otherwise perform all functions of a grand jury” with regard to a host of possible offenses outlined in Monday’s order, which mirrors the request by DeSantis.
In a statement issued Monday, DeSantis said he was “pleased” with the court’s decision.
“This grand jury will work to investigate practices, identify failures and recommend solutions to keep students, teachers and staff safe in our schools,” he said.
The legislation passed last year included creation of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which spent months studying the Parkland shooting and school-safety issues. The commission last month released a 458-page report that addressed issues such as a breakdown in communications and security procedures.
At the governor’s behest, the grand-jury probe will include whether “refusal or failure to follow the mandates of school-related safety laws, such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, results in unnecessary and unavoidable risk to students across the state.”
The inquiry will also focus on “whether public entities committed — and continue to commit — fraud and deceit by accepting state funds conditioned on implementation of certain safety measures while knowingly failing to act.”
And the grand jury will explore “whether school officials committed — and continue to commit — fraud and deceit by mismanaging, failing to use, and diverting funds from multimillion-dollar bonds specifically solicited for school safety initiatives.”
The panel will also investigate whether school officials violated state law “by systemically underreporting incidents of criminal activity to the Department of Education.”
Shortly after he took office in January, DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, whose office was fiercely criticized for its handling of the Parkland massacre. Israel, a Democrat, has appealed his suspension to the Florida Senate.
Last month’s report by the state commission also found shortcomings in how Broward County schools dealt with confessed killer Nikolas Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High student. But DeSantis said he lacks the authority to remove the county’s appointed school superintendent, Robert Runcie, and instead asked the Supreme Court to launch the statewide investigation.
A statewide grand jury is “something real,” DeSantis, flanked by victims’ family members, said at a Feb. 13 press conference in Fort Lauderdale.
“This is something that is very serious,” the governor said. “Whatever recommendations they have for us, we’re going to heed that.”