Judge: School Districts Must Assign Safe-School Officers to Charter Schools
As published in the Daily Business Review
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, many charter public schools faced extreme difficulty in hiring qualified safe-school officers for their campuses. In Broward County, the school board took the extraordinary step of immediately revoking the charter of Championship Academy of Distinction at Davie and taking over the school after a safe-school officer was not present on campus during the first two days of class.
The case of Broward County School Board v. Championship Academy of Distinction at Davie, Case Nos. 19-004818 and 19-005310 (Fla. DOAH July 31, 2020), marked the first time that a Florida charter school successfully challenged, on appeal, the immediate termination of its charter by a school district. In reinstating the school’s charter, Judge Cathy M. Sellers determined that the school board failed to show that there was an immediate and serious danger to the school’s students and teachers that justified an immediate termination of the charter. More important, the Championship Academy decision held that the school board had a legal obligation to assign or establish safe-school officers at all public schools, including charter schools. This decision will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for traditional and charter public schools alike throughout the state of Florida, as they prepare to reopen their classrooms for in-person learning.
Following the tragic shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 7026 known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act that became effective on March 9, 2018. The act amended Section 1006.12, Fla. Stat., to create the term “safe-school officers” and require each district school board and school district superintendent to establish or assign one or more safe-school officers for the protection and safety of school personnel, property, students, and visitors at each school facility within the district.
The 2018 version of Section 1006.12, Fla. Stat., permitted three different categories of safe-school officers: school resource officers established by school districts through a cooperative agreement with law enforcement agencies; school safety officers employed by either a law enforcement agency or by a district school board who are commissioned and appointed by the district school board; and school guardians i.e., school employees who voluntarily participate in The Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. In May 2019, the Florida Legislature amended section 1006.12 to clarify that charter schools must have safe-school officers on campus. The statute now provides for a fourth safe-school officer option: a school security guard who is contracted through a security agency.
Championship Academy did have a licensed security guard on the opening day of the 2019-2020 school year, but that person was not certified by the Broward Sheriff’s Office in compliance with the Marjory Stoneman High School Public Safety Act. The school board determined that Championship Academy’s failure to have, on campus during the first two days of school, a safe-school officer who met the requirements of Section 1006.12, constituted an immediate and serious danger to the health, safety or welfare of the students, thereby justifying the immediate termination of the school’s charter. During the second week of the school year, the school board took over the management and operations of the school.
On appeal, the school board acknowledged that they did not establish or assign any safe-school officers at any charter schools in Broward County, including Championship Academy, during the 2019-2020 school year. In fact, the school board had a contract with the Davie Police Department for all 13 of its school resource officers who were assigned to the 12 traditional public schools in Davie. As a result, Championship Academy had to rely on private duty detail coverage, voluntary coverage by off-duty Davie police officers whose presence was not guaranteed by the police department.
There was no evidence presented at the final hearing showing that there were any threats to the students or teachers (e.g., bomb threats, trespassing by unauthorized persons, armed persons presenting a danger), or that any of the students or teachers expressed concern for their safety at any time. In fact, the Davie Police Department provided security coverage each day beginning on the third day of school until the COVID-19 pandemic closed all public schools. Moreover, Championship Academy implemented strong safety measures to protect its students long before the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. For example, Championship Academy had hired a retired SWAT team to train all of its employees to respond to active assailant situations on campus to mitigate any threat and prevent injury and loss of life.
Significantly, the judge rejected the school board’s interpretation of Section 1006.12 as placing the responsibility solely on charter schools to secure a safe-school officer for its campuses. To this point, the school board’s representatives, including Superintendent Robert Runcie, testified that they always believed charter schools were solely responsible for assigning or establishing safe-school officers for their schools. The Judge determined that this interpretation is contrary to the safe-school officer statute.
The Championship Academy decision conclusively establishes that school boards and superintendents are ultimately responsible for assigning safe-school officers at all public schools within the district, including charter schools. Charter schools have the flexibility to choose which safe-school officer option works best for their circumstances and to independently find and hire safe-school officers on their own. But if a charter school chooses to request assistance from its school district in procuring a safe-school officer, the district must assist them in doing so because the school board is ultimately responsible for assigning a safe-school officer at each public school. This legal obligation, as affirmed in the Championship Academy case, will help to ensure that students of charter schools will receive security coverage by safe-school officers when public schools resume in-person classes for this school year.