Flunk Out

Dade County's school district may have its own police department, but law enforcement experts say it doesn't come close to making the grade

Among the most pressing of those concerns is the looming presence of the district's Office of Professional Standards (OPS) -- a civilian agency that for years has maintained tight control over many police functions. For example, even the most basic criminal investigation of school district employees -- from janitors to principals -- cannot begin without the approval of OPS administrators. Often those administrators simply bypass police and conduct their own investigations. In addition, say a dozen school police officers, OPS on occasion thwarts their attempts to investigate allegations of criminal wrongdoing -- allegations that sometimes involve child sexual abuse.

"We as a police department disagree with the way the school police department is run," declares Lt. Carlos Alfaro, who supervises sexual battery detectives at the Miami Police Department. "I wouldn't trust the school police department with my child's allegations when decisions are made by people who have an interest in keeping [the allegations] quiet."

Alfaro's boss, Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw, is bewildered by OPS's role in criminal matters. "It would be like me going to [Miami City Manager] Ed Marquez to ask for permission to arrest someone," he says. "It's almost unthinkable. That's what makes a police chief and a police department different: The city manager can tell you how to spend money, he can hold back your budget, but he can't get involved in the investigation of crimes."

Adds State Attorney Fernandez Rundle: "We were very concerned about criminal allegations being screened by OPS, which is really an administrative arm. [OPS officials] were making the determination as to which allegations should be investigated criminally. We thought that was an inappropriate screening method. Criminal allegations need to be reviewed by an agency that has the ability to work up a case and determine whether charges should be filed."

In interviews for this article, Fernandez Rundle expressed her concerns in the past tense because she believed they had been fully addressed and corrected. The embarrassment and frustration provoked by A Current Affair's February broadcast of the incident involving Ronald Major had been compounded by a more recent case in which school officials failed to notify police after an eight-year-old girl told them she had been sexually assaulted by a monitor at W.J. Bryan Elementary School. Moreover, in recent months the sexual battery unit at the State Attorney's Office has been investigating several school district cases in which no criminal charges have been filed, despite one knowledgeable prosecutor's startling conclusion that "children have been victimized again and again."

Such was the level of alarm that the state attorney dispatched two of her top prosecutors to meet with school district officials. Their mandate: The district must adopt new policies for handling reports of child abuse and must revise procedures in such a way that OPS would be excluded from involvement in all criminal cases.

The meeting, held in April, included public corruption prosecutor Joe Centorino and Windy Johnston, supervisor of the state attorney's sexual battery unit. The school district was represented by deputy superintendent Carol Cortes, Chief Vivian Monroe, and the district's in-house attorney, Phyllis Douglas.

Initially the administrators flatly rejected the prosecutors' proposals. "The State Attorney's Office didn't want OPS involved [in any child-abuse investigations]," Cortes recalls. "We had a real problem with that because if it's an employee, we have to know so we can reassign them."

But Johnston and Centorino persevered, and in mid-April Douglas sent a letter to Johnston signaling the district's willingness to adopt a new policy -- at least regarding cases of suspected child abuse. A month later, however, Chief Vivian Monroe still had not incorporated it into the police department's standard operating procedures. In a May 28 memorandum, attorney Douglas insisted that the chief insert the following language into the procedures manual: "In the case of suspected or confirmed child abuse committed by a school board employee, it shall immediately be reported to Dade County school police. The school police will make the determination as to whether to handle the investigation itself or to refer it to the local law enforcement sexual battery unit. School police will notify the School Board's Office of Professional Standards so that decisions can be made reference removing the accused employee from the school site.... The Office of Professional Standards will make no determination regarding the appropriateness of criminal investigation." (A police department official says the new policy was added to the procedures manual within the last couple of weeks.)

But contrary to the expectations of Centorino, Johnston, and State Attorney Fernandez Rundle, the school district has not removed OPS from involvement in all criminal matters. If an employee like Judith Hunter or Suzanne Glasse should be accused of breaking the law (without injury to a child), OPS still controls the decision whether to launch a criminal investigation.

In defending the district's determination to keep OPS in the criminal loop, attorney Douglas argues that adults do not need the same protection as children. "Let's say I'm a school [district] employee and one of my subordinates beats me up," she hypothesizes. "I want this guy prosecuted, fired, and OPS says, 'We think he has a drinking problem and that's why we won't pursue a criminal case.' There's nothing to prevent me from going down to the State Attorney's Office and pressing charges."

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