Drug smuggling, organized crime and now, education: A statewide grand jury is a novel approach to keeping kids safe at school

February 18, 2019 7:00 am
One Year Anniversary Parkland tragedy

A memorial at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, following the mass shooting on February 14, 2018, in Parkland. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Once upon a time a Florida governor decided to create a Statewide Grand Jury so the good guys could eliminate drug smuggling.

That governor was Reubin Askew and we all know how that ended.

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants a Statewide Grand Jury to deal with violence in public schools.

It could well turn out to be an equally difficult problem to solve. Maybe even more difficult because we seem to have a significant number of Floridians who oppose gun control in any form.

The original statewide grand juries created in the early 1970’s were substantially handicapped by the bureaucracy that surrounded prosecutions.

One state attorney was chosen to present cases to the grand jury in any circuit in Florida. Then the actual prosecution was turned over to local prosecutors who generally had little to do with making the charges and not much interest in taking on a complex multi-defendant case defended by some of the country’s best lawyers.

Those early drug cases often fell apart. Some of the defendants fled the country, often remaining fugitives for many years. Others plea bargained for short sentences and served brief prison terms.

After a few years state officials repaired the problems, appointing a statewide prosecutor who handled cases from beginning to end in all jurisdictions.  More and more drug smugglers went to prison, but the problem remains one of Florida’s most serious.

After a time, state officials used the grand juries to address gambling and organized crimes, losing sight of the idea that the system was designed to focus on the flood of illegal drugs that began with small boatloads of marijuana and later shifted into multi-ton loads of pot and huge shipments of cocaine, heroin and other more dangerous drugs.

DeSantis wants Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox, who was recently reappointed to the post, to examine the murder of 17 students and staff and the injury of 17 others at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The prosecutor is also directed to examine the way police and public officials responded to the shooting at Parkland and take a look at problems in other schools around the state.  He also wants jurors to determine whether some school districts mismanaged funds from multi-million-dollar bonds approved for school safety initiatives and determine if local school officials have under reported the number of criminal incidents on school campuses.

The State Grand Jury will be headquartered in Fort Lauderdale but will draw some of its members from neighboring circuits.

By having a special Grand Jury make recommendations, the governor no doubt hopes those suggestions will result in legislative action that would prevent future problems and curb all sorts of crimes on school campuses.

He may find lawmakers will look at the Grand Jury reports and take little action.

Using the Statewide Grand Jury is a novel approach to a specific problem involving the safety of Florida’s children.

And it’s different than the drug smuggling cases of the past. In those, the jury could indict dozens of drug smugglers and send some to prison, but dozens more would replace them.

Smuggling got more and more sophisticated as the years went on and law enforcement officials tried to deal with more powerful boats and airplanes and smugglers who could afford to equip their boats and vehicles with top-of-the-line electronics.

The profits of smuggling were just too good to completely put a stop to it.

In the case of school campuses, the jury also will be facing a group that likes to profit from the sale of guns. That is sure to figure into the picture, along with support from the National Rifle Association, a group that has long gotten its way in the state legislature.

On the other side you have the parents and teachers who survived a Valentine’s Day shooting by a former student who came to school with an automatic weapon and used it wherever he could.

The Parkland students and their families didn’t go home after the shooting and hide. They came out in full voice to denounce the violence and urge state lawmakers to pass laws that would restrict the sale of high-powered weapons.

They didn’t win that battle, but they did get lawmakers to limit the sales to children under 21, a measure that some already are attempting to repeal. And they have become a formidable force in the fight against school violence.

It’s going to be more than interesting to watch.

All in all, the governor gets points for trying to do something other than offering “thoughts and prayers.’’




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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.