The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a statewide grand jury with a broad mandate to investigate school safety.
The panel also will investigate if school districts or other agencies fraudulently accepted state school safety money, then failed to act, and whether school officials illegally under-reported criminal incidents to the state.
The court acted in response to a Feb. 13 request from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who asked for the grand jury the day before the one-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre.
The court’s seven justices unanimously ordered the grand jury, including the three justices appointed by DeSantis in the weeks after he took office in January.
The focus of the grand jury’s work is broad, but its intent is clear: the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas massacre, in which 17 people were killed and 17 injured. Family members of people killed in the shooting have pushed for more accountability than they say has been showed by the Broward School Board and Superintendent Robert Runcie.
“We know Broward has to be looked at. I don’t know if Hamilton County needs to be,” DeSantis said when he announced he was asking for the grand jury at an appearance in Fort Lauderdale with the families of many Stoneman Douglas victims. “There’s more evidence in Broward than other districts.”
In his request to the court, DeSantis wrote that the Stoneman Douglas massacre was a “tragic and avoidable incident” and said there “is a need to examine the crimes and wrongs that precipitated the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting and that even now result in unsafe schools across the state.”
The court order establishing the grand jury incorporated the exact wording of of what DeSantis wanted investigated. The Supreme Court said the grand jury’s purpose relates, but is not limited, to:
— “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 avoidable risk to students across the state.
— “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.
— “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.
— “Whether school officials violated — and continue to violate — state law by systemically under-reporting incidents of criminal activity to the Department of Education.”
Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter is the presiding judge over the grand jury, which will draw its 18 members from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
A grand jury, which has subpoena power, can investigate and report on a situation, and issue criminal indictments. It will have a term of 12 months from the date it is impaneled.
Grand juries have investigated the school district before, in 1997, 2003 and 2011, focused largely on mismanagement and corruption related to school construction and facilities.
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