Arrest of Broward schools volunteer should have been avoided, review finds

The arrest of a longtime Broward schools volunteer, accused of battery on a police officer, was likely avoidable — resulting from a poorly trained police and security force who failed to de-escalate tensions during a heated School Board meeting, a district-commissioned report said.

The report also says arresting officer John Mastrianni entered the “personal space” of Debbie Espinoza, who was attending the Oct. 17 meeting, causing her to bump into him — action he then used to arrest her. She ended up spending 27 hours in jail before being released on her own recognizance.

Mastrianni is a detective with the district’s Special Investigative Unit, a small police force that provides security for district events and conducts employee investigations.

“An arrest should always be the last option but when it is warranted there needs to be procedures in place,” wrote Timothy Enos, who retired in early 2022 as chief of the Sarasota County School District. He now serves on the Sarasota School Board.

The Broward school district agreed to pay Enos up to $2,500 to review the incident, after School Board members questioned whether Espinoza’s arrest was warranted. The State Attorney’s Office plans to review the report before deciding whether to file formal charges against Espinoza.

“Prosecutors are waiting for some additional material and will make a decision after they review everything,” said Paula McMahon, a spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office.

Espinoza declined to comment, and her lawyer, John Thomas David, couldn’t be reached. Neither Mastrianni nor a representative from his union, the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, could be reached.

The incident happened at a tense meeting on sex education. Espinoza, who spoke in favor of a new curriculum, got into a verbal exchange at the meeting with Deidre Ruth, a vocal sex ed opponent, who was waiting in line to speak. Ruth was not arrested.

The report recommends de-escalation training, a different configuration for public speakers and better operational planning for meetings, especially ones that could become heated.

“When someone gets arrested, it’s very traumatic and very, very humiliating,” Enos told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in an interview. “It’s one thing if someone is screaming at the top of their lungs and you have to arrest them. But ultimately you’re trying to get voluntary compliance, and there are things the district staff could have done to allow that to happen.”

Superintendent Peter Licata said he is “saddened this incident took place” and appreciates the report.

“What can’t be ignored is the adults did not act appropriately in public,” he said, referring to Espinoza and Ruth, not his own staff.

Licata said the district plans to improve training and will make some “structural changes” to the district’s safety and security department, although he wouldn’t elaborate.

He said some changes have already been made. The meeting room configuration has been changed to give audience members more room. There are now two podiums, so public speakers can go the podiums one at a time when their names are called, rather than having to line up.

Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff also starts off meetings now with some new procedures for what happens if a meeting attendee becomes disruptive.

Licata said he doesn’t expect any discipline or personnel investigations as a result of this review.

He agreed to conduct the outside review after several School Board members voiced alarm at the arrest of Espinoza, who was named the district’s “Volunteer of the Year” in 2020.

Enos reviewed school district surveillance camera videos as well as videos publicly available on social media and news coverage. Enos did not interview Mastrianni, Espinoza or any witnesses.

Enos said he felt it was unnecessary to remove either Espinoza or Ruth from the meeting. He said it’s up to the board chairwoman to ask a disruptive person to be removed, and that didn’t happen.

After Alhadeff heard people in the audience speaking during the meeting, she gave a warning. Licata then instructed security staff to move closer to the line if they felt it was necessary.

“It appeared that at this time there was no need for intervention as both parties had stopped with outbursts nor was there any removal requested by the chair,” Enos wrote.

Alhadeff recessed the meeting for a few minutes, and Ruth made a loud outburst as she was being instructed to leave the meeting. Mastrianni escorted Espinoza out while another officer escorted Ruth out. Espinoza can be heard on video shouting to Mastrianni, “Don’t push me!”

Mastrianni made no effort at de-escalation with Espinoza once they were in the board room lobby, according to the report. Espinoza “continued to be upset by the removal, and it appeared that the SIU detective moved closer to the victim, easily within her personal space, which ultimately caused her to come into contact with him, resulting in her arrest.”

Enos told the Sun Sentinel his use of the word “victim” was a typo, and it should have read “party” or “subject.”

From surveillance video, which had no audio, Enos said it appeared that Espinoza was reaching for her sunglasses in a large tote bag.

“The SIU detective can be seen directly behind the party to the point [Espinoza] would not have been able to turn around,” the report said. “She can be seen placing her bag onto her shoulder and in doing so bumps the officer who is standing closely behind her.”

Enos told the Sun Sentinel he believes that moving closer was an intentional move by Mastrianni.

“While I can’t speak for his reasoning, in my estimation if you are de-escalating, you do not get closer,” he told the Sun Sentinel.

The report said that after the arrest, Espinoza was handcuffed with her large bag still on her shoulder and was taken outside to a bench for about six minutes, where the handcuffs were adjusted.

“Other people can be seen walking past her while seated on the bench,” the report said.

She was then brought back into the district building where she was placed in an area that is sometimes used as a concession stand, witnesses told the Sun Sentinel.

“If an arrest is made, the subject should be removed immediately from the area,” Enos wrote. “Placing the subject outside on a bench while arrested where multiple people could observe her is not recommended. This could only escalate the incident.”

While Espinoza was being arrested, Ruth, was allowed to come back to the meeting and give public comments if she agreed to be calm. Alhadeff told the Sun Sentinel she wasn’t aware at that time that Espinoza, who had already spoken, was being arrested.

“After the board chair has requested a subject’s removal, no one should be allowed back into the board meeting after they have been removed,” Enos wrote.

Enos is a 32-year law enforcement veteran, spending most of his time with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. He was hired in 2018 to create a full-service police department for the Sarasota school district and served as its chief until January 2022.

He was elected to the Sarasota County School Board last year as part of a wave of candidates backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who helped flip School Boards from liberal to conservative. He currently serves as vice chairman.