Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio fired off a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanding investigations into what Rubio called "alarming" claims made about Broward County Public Schools in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High mass shooting. Many of those claims have already been rebuffed by Broward administrators.
But most alarming among Rubio's claims is the allegation that the district allows students to return to regular schools after being convicted of serious crimes, including rape, murder, attempted murder, sexual battery, and offenses involving firearms. "If a person is convicted of such crimes, would these actions disqualify the offender from being able to legally purchase a firearm?" Rubio asks in his letter.
The junior senator, whose office didn't respond to multiple requests from New Times, is apparently unaware of a long-standing federal law banning felons from owning guns. But are convicted criminals really being funneled back into traditional schools in Broward? Rubio has, after all, previously bungled the nuances of the district's programs post-Parkland.
The truth is complicated. Data shows that Broward transitioned nearly 600 students from state detention back into classes last year — but the school district is required to do so by state and federal law, and it's unclear how many of those students went into alternative schools versus regular classrooms.
Broward's rules for dealing with students convicted of felonies are actually dictated by Florida law, which requires districts to educate kids in Department of Juvenile Justice custody. The school district is also required to work with the department to create "individualized transition plans," which coordinate services that "assist the student in successful community reintegration upon release."
"The school district, upon return of a student from a juvenile justice education program, must consider the individual needs and circumstances of the student and the transition plan recommendations when
Districts cannot create a standard policy for all students returning from a juvenile justice program. Instead, the law says they must place each student based on their needs and performance. And the law emphasizes finding ways to get those kids back into district schools because, as a 2011 report from the Florida Senate's Committee on Education Pre-K to 12 puts it, "research shows that when youth return from such placements to school, recidivism rates drop and their successful re-entry into the community becomes more likely."
Under the state's suggested reentry process, the student, parents, school counselor, probation officer, and case manager are among those who help determine the school for the student. A sample "exit plan" collects input from transition meetings, including the recommended placement. A Department of Juvenile Justice educational representative must describe the student's behavior and whether he or she has been involved in any physical altercations or has behavioral issues requiring a longer stay.
If the transition team recommends the student be placed in an alternative school, the sample exit plan requires an explanation. It offers two boxes that can be checked: poor behavior or credit recovery.
Statewide, 7,485 students participating in a Department of Juvenile Justice education program returned to a non-Department of Juvenile Justice school in the 2015-16 academic year, according to department data. Included in that figure are students placed in alternative schools, which are designed for kids who struggle with behavioral issues.
That year, 570 Broward County students transitioned from incarceration back to school, according to district data. Administrators could not immediately provide a breakdown on how many students ended up in their home schools and how many ended up in alternative schools. It is also unclear what crimes those students committed.
"We take great responsibility towards achieving our mission — to educate all students to reach their highest potential," reads the executive summary of "Eliminating the School-to-Prison Pipeline," a district document. "We believe the potential of each of our students is worth developing, including our youth who are at risk of engaging in delinquent or criminal behaviors, and those already involved in the juvenile justice system."
The district has an agreement with the Department of Juvenile Justice that 60 days before a student is released, the district will compile an "exit packet" that determines the student's "most appropriate educational setting."
Students convicted of violent crimes such as the ones Rubio mentions in his letter — rape, murder, attempted murder, sexual battery, and firearms-related offenses — are among those who can be assigned to the Behavior Intervention Program, according to a district handbook. The program is for students who exhibit "severe, unmanageable behavior that cannot be adequately controlled in a traditional school setting" and provides a structured environment with behavioral support.
Besides helping students convicted of crimes, the program also enrolls off-campus offenders and students with repeated behavioral issues. During the 2016-17 school year, the district's Behavioral Intervention Committee assigned 88 students to the program.
But some parents in Broward say they're worried about one particular paragraph in the handbook, which suggests some students can return to traditional schools within three to six months after leaving detention for serious crimes: "Through the structures provided in this program, it is expected that students will acquire the necessary skills to enable them to optimally function in the traditional school setting when they return. Students are usually assigned to the Behavior Intervention Center for 90 to 180 days successful school days."
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But when they were questioned about the program during a tense public safety forum last month, administrators insisted students convicted of crimes do not return to traditional school settings.
"That student is placed in one of our programs, not back to the regular school in the community," said Michaelle Pope, executive director of Student Support Initiatives. "So if that's what you're referencing, know that they are not placed back into the regular program, that the determination is made by a committee that reviews the crime, the court order, and we address the needs of that child in one of our alternative programs."
Rubio's letter also demands investigations into other claims the district has already steadfastly denied, including that school resource officers were directed not to arrest students for felonies and that the district received federal funding under the Obama administration for its reformed discipline policies. The senator requested that in addition to researching the claims, the Department of Education consider developing a division of experts to provide schools assistance with improving safety.
A spokesperson for DeVos told New Times the department has received the letter and is reviewing it.