Grand jury blasts Duval County School Police crime reporting as ‘chicanery’

Group looking into school safety says Duval example of statewide problems in large districts

In an interim report released Thursday, a statewide grand jury studying school safety pointed sharply to the Duval County school district as an example of how not to handle crime reporting.

In an interim report released Thursday, a statewide grand jury studying school safety pointed sharply to the Duval County school district as an example of how not to handle crime reporting.

The grand jury report accused the district of underreporting crimes and gang activity happening inside its schools.

In a statement released Friday evening, Duval County Public Schools said the report is based on findings over a number of years and that improvements have been made to procedures in recent years. The district said it will seek an external review of its reporting practices to see whether charges are in order.

“The findings presented are being taken seriously and will be thoroughly reviewed by the Duval School Board,” School Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen said. “We are committed to providing a safe educational environment for our children and communities.”

A scathing grand jury accusing the district of under-reporting crimes and gang activity inside schools.

Lt. Shannon Hartley, with the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police, said he’s not convinced.

“I think that the investigation needs to be external from them. They don’t need to be involved in the investigation,” he said. “They’re changing their policies, but they’re changing their behavior to fit the data that they needed to fit to continue to get the funds that they need to get.”

The report indicated the same issues seem to arise in districts across the state that have large student populations, appointed superintendents and their own district police departments with leaders who report to administration, rather than law enforcement agencies.

The 27-page document posted late Thursday afternoon on the Florida Supreme Court website was the third interim report issued by the grand jury, which the court impaneled in February 2019 at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis. The request came a year after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

RELATED: Statewide grand jury says Florida’s mental health system a ‘mess’

The grand jury report released Thursday called out the Duval County School Police Department and the district’s administration for policies the grand jury said artificially reduced crime statistics by allowing “administrators without any legal training” to decide whether a crime is a “petty act of misconduct.”

According to Florida Statutes, “petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors, including, but not limited to, minor fights or disturbances” can be considered matters of school discipline.

But, the grand jury found, “the districts have proven either unwilling or incapable of rationally implementing what was no doubt well-intended legislation. It is time to rein in the runaway stagecoach.”

The grand jury said some local school districts “have abused the vagueness of this definition” to avoid reporting crimes, including some very serious crimes, to the state or local law enforcement. “Physical attacks on teachers become ‘disturbances.’ Large-scale brawls become ‘minor fights,’” the grand jury said.

Blasting Duval County as a prime example of this, the grand jury said that through reports and testimony it found that Duval County school administration had directed its police chief, who in turn directed his officers, that no misdemeanor crimes needed to be reported to a law enforcement agency.

“The Duval County School District’s written directives (likewise developed by administrators and mandated by the police chief and school administration alike) considered such things as Extortion (a felony) and Stalking to not require reports (and these are by no means the only examples),” the report said.

The report then pointed to a specific example of reporting regarding “gang-related” activity in Duval County. Florida Department of Education training requires schools to indicate if an incident is “gang-related,” meaning gang affiliation either caused or contributed to the incident.

The grand jury said it had seen testimony and documentation of “widespread gang activity on school premises” in Duval County, which has an active Gang Liasion detective. But despite that, of 30,000 incidents reported to the state from 2016-2020, only six were labeled “gang-related.”

“It appears to us that this number dramatically underrepresents the level of gang activity in Duval County schools,” the grand jury wrote. “No one is made safer by this chicanery. Indeed, this behavior is counterproductive.”

The grand jury argued that it is simply unreasonable to leave the responsibility of reporting crimes in the hands of officials who don’t want to “allow potential political opponents to paint schools in their districts as violent and disorderly.”

They said when a district controls the law enforcement agency on campuses, as it does in Duval County, that allows the district to also control the data generated by the agency “and the optics of that data -- and optics, unfortunately, are what we hear most often drive some of the ‘policies defining petty acts of misconduct’ described in the statute.”

The grand jury recommended that school district law enforcement chiefs across the state be required to either be elected or to report to county law enforcement. They also recommended the Legislature “remove the ability of individual Districts to define those things which require a report to law enforcement.”

The grand jury report did mention possible motives by school districts to keep students from becoming a part of the criminal justice system, saying: “If the goal is truly to minimize a student’s criminal history […] there are opportunities for diversion, counseling, civil citation, or other disposition.”

A 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that Black K-12 students are 3.2 times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school.

The Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police responded to the report, backing the recommendations of the grand jury and saying it’s time for an elected school police chief or for the agency to move back under the jurisdiction of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office did not comment on whether it agreed with the recommendations.

“We are sure the grand jury has not even touched the tip of the iceberg, and we look forward to their work continuing,” FOP wrote.

We have been echoing much of this for years, they have been getting away with this stuff for too long. Time for an...

Posted by Fraternal Order of Police Jacksonville, FL Lodge 5-30 on Friday, December 11, 2020

In its statement, the school district said the safety and security of students and employees remains the highest priority.

“The Interim report covers a number of years,” the district’s statement said. “During this time the district has made procedural improvements related to student behavioral incident reporting. We remain committed to examining current procedures to ensure strict compliance. To assure the School Board and the public, Duval County Schools will pursue an external review of district and school reporting practices to determine if further improvements are needed. As the Grand Jury is still actively convened, we look forward to providing additional updates upon the conclusion of its proceedings.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.