Probe into district ‘spying’ requested, safety deal ripped, enrollment and application dips and more

Around the state: Broward teachers are calling for an investigation into the school board attorney’s authorization of “spying” on teachers working remotely, Pinellas civil rights leaders said they were “dismayed” that the school district negotiated an agreement with law enforcement agencies for school protection without enough input, a former Polk County principal is under investigation for allegedly creating a hostile work environment, the Seminole school district names its teacher of the year, the Escambia and Santa Rosa districts are projecting enrollment declines that could cost them millions of dollars in state funding, fewer first-generation and low-income students are applying for college even as many schools are reporting record numbers of applications, and an influential state legislator wants $2 million for a pilot program to monitor students’ communications on district-issued devices to watch for warning signs of suicide or violent behavior. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: Teachers union officials are accusing the school board’s attorney of “spying on medically at-risk teachers” in order to win a court case, and want the school board and Superintendent Robert Runcie to investigate her. Union president Anna Fusco said general counsel Barbara Myrick authorized employees to check Facebook pages of teachers working from home to try to catch them acting irresponsibly. Some photos from Facebook showed teachers attending a wedding, a rally for Joe Biden and visiting Animal Kingdom. “It was a jaded attempt to argue that these educators were therefore not in need of medical accommodations,” Fusco said. “These pictures have been circulated by print and electronic media. Who thought it was right to go on their Facebook pages?” Myrick said the research was done by district employees, not her. The law firm that represented the district in the court case, in which the union challenged the district’s order for teachers to return to schools, defended the use of the photos. Sun Sentinel. A former assistant principal at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland has died of complications from COVID-19. Delania Williams-Cunningham worked at Stoneman from 2005 to 2013. She was 53. Sun Sentinel.

Palm Beach: Reports of the district’s inspector general’s internal investigations will continue to be published online, the school board has decided, but those that spark further investigation by the district or a law enforcement agency will be delayed. The other exception for publishing is when the subject of the investigation is cleared of any wrongdoing. Those reports will continue to be available through public records requests. Palm Beach Post. A district teacher has been arrested and charged with being an authority figure soliciting lewd conduct with a student, according to district police. Israel Gonzalez, 56, a teacher and Navy JROTC instructor at Royal Palm Beach Community High School, allegedly tried to interest an 18-year-old student into starting a romantic relationship. WPTV. Sun Sentinel. WTVJ.

Polk: Recently removed Hillcrest Elementary School principal Jennifer Barrow is under investigation by the Lake Wales Charter School District for allegations that she created a hostile work environment. The district asked the sheriff’s office to conduct the administrative investigation. Barrow was removed last month by Superintendent Jesse Jackson, who was placed on administrative leave for the decision, then reinstated last week but is resigning effective Feb. 26. Lakeland Ledger.

Pinellas, Tampa Bay area: Civil rights leaders said they were “dismayed” to learn that the Pinellas County School District had negotiated a new agreement with 13 local police agencies “without the input of parents and students and with scarcely any input from educators.” The agreement, which was to replace agreements from 2006 and 2014, was scheduled to be voted on Jan. 12 by the school board but was pulled from the agenda by recently elected board member Caprice Edmond, who said more input from the community was needed.  Tampa Bay Times. The number of coronavirus cases reported in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco schools declined last week, but went from 31 two weeks ago to 43 in Hernando County. The total number of cases in the four districts declined from 836 two weeks ago to 606, a dip of nearly 28 percent. Tampa Bay Times.

Brevard: Black History Month is taking on extra significance in the district this month, after the past year of police shootings, nationwide protests and the heightened attention being paid to the Black Lives Matter movement. Florida Today. Janene Romero, a crossing guard at Croton Elementary School in Melbourne, has won the 2020 school crossing guard of the year extra mile award give out annually by the Florida Department of Transportation. She also coordinates all the school crossing guards for the Melbourne Police Department. Florida Today.

Osceola: A student-led rally was held Friday outside Liberty High School to support the 16-year-old student who was slammed to the ground last week by a school resource officer who was trying to break up a fight. The deputy, Ethan Fournier, is on paid administrative leave while the incident is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Orlando Sentinel.

Seminole: Clayton Donnan, who teaches game and simulation design at the Crooms Academy of Information magnet school in Sanford, has been named the Seminole County School District’s teacher of the year. Donnan, 42, has been at the school 17 years. He also teaches steel band, started a drum line at the school and runs an annual social gaming event that raises thousands for charity. The other finalists were Amy High of Idyllwilde Elementary and Barbara Miller of Lawton Chiles Middle. Orlando Sentinel.

Manatee: School board members will consider Tuesday whether to continue to require students and employees to wear face masks at schools and on buses.  The mandate is reviewed every 90 days. District officials are urging the board to make no changes. Bradenton Herald. A part-time custodian at G.D. Rogers Bullock Elementary School has been arrested and accused of pointing a gun at a woman during a fight last month. Deputies said Luis Almodovar, 32, who also allegedly choked the victim, has been charged with aggravated assault with a weapon. School officials said he’s been removed from contact with students pending a resolution of the charges. Bradenton Herald.

Escambia, Santa Rosa: Escambia’s and Santa Rosa’s school districts are projected by the state to have 3,145 fewer students than expected, which could cut millions of dollars from the budgets of each district. Escambia had a projected 38,386 students midway through the school year, nearly 1,260 fewer students than the 39,644 students it had last year. The projection for next year is 38,645 students. Santa Rosa schools had an estimated 26,708 students at the academic year midpoint, which is about 1,900 fewer than last year. The state report projects the district to have 27,536 students in the 2021-2022 school year. Pensacola News Journal. An online charter school has won the approval of the Santa Rosa County School Board, and plans to open in the fall. Coastal Connections Academy will be the third charter school in the county. “The unique thing about this charter school is it’s full-time virtual,” said Superintendent Karen Barber. “Any student in the state of Florida, no matter where they reside, may receive educational services through this charter school.” Pensacola News Journal.

Leon: The head basketball coaches for the girls and boys teams at Chiles High School have been removed after an internal district investigation. School officials would not divulge the nature of the investigations against boys coach Rick Davis and girls coach De’Ja Jeffery. WTXL.

Okaloosa: A district middle school teacher has been arrested after being accused of having a sexual relationship with a student between 2017 and 2020. Deputies said Hayley Hallmark, 35, a teacher and soccer coach at Ruckel Middle School in Niceville, was arrested after the victim, who was 15 in 2017, confided in a teacher at Niceville High School, where she now attends. Hallmark is charged with lewd and lascivious conduct with a student by an authority figure, and is on administrative leave. Northwest Florida Daily News. WMBB. WJHG.

Colleges and universities: Even as many colleges and universities around the country are reporting record numbers of applications, fewer first-generation and low-income students are applying, according to college access advocacy groups. “What I’m afraid of is this might leave a lost generation of students,” said Eric Waldo, chief access and equity programs officer and executive director of the Reach Higher initiative. “If we missed that chance, if they don’t apply, they don’t go, it’s so much harder to get them on a post-secondary track afterward.” Orlando Sentinel. The push to get college students back into classrooms is exposing a rift over safety between the schools and their professors, residents of the cities the schools are in, and even some students. Tampa Bay Times. Colleges and universities in Polk County are getting a collective $32 million from the December federal coronavirus relief package approved by Congress. Lakeland Ledger.

In the Legislature: State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, has filed a request for $2 million to subscribe to a service called Gaggle, which monitors students’ conversations on district-issued devices for signs of suicide, self-harm and abusive behaviors. “While the state has invested considerable money to keep children safe in the classroom, no investment has been made by the state to keep kids safe in the ‘digital classroom’ they are now using,” the request for the pilot program reads. “This technology would inform districts and staff to incidents prior to tragic events.” Florida Politics. Bills supporting a moment of silence to start every school day and the development of a civics literacy curriculum are moving quickly through legislative committees, a sign they may be received favorably when the session opens March 2. WJXT. Whether to give statewide testing assessments, and how to use the results if they are administered, continue to be flashpoints between educators, districts and the state. Politico Florida. WFSU.

Around the nation: President Joe Biden’s $130 billion proposed relief package for schools may fall short on correcting learning losses, according to some education experts. The 74. The U.S. Education Department will survey 7,000 schools nationwide as a start to begin tracking which schools have reopened, how many hours of face-to-face instruction they are getting and weighing the inequality of access to learning. NPR. The debate over reopening schools is an early test for the Biden administration’s relationship with teachers unions. Associated Press.

Opinions on schools: In coming months, lawmakers will consider a proposal to convert the state’s school choice scholarships into education savings accounts. That will give tens of thousands of other families the kind of control over their children’s educations that my family has. Especially now, in the midst of the pandemic, that ability to create as many options as possible makes sense. Stephanie Conner, Fort Myers News-Press. For far too many LGBTQ kids, school is still an absolute nightmare. The survey data from GLSEN is depressing and infuriating and also revealing. All school sectors are falling tragically short in providing safe learning environments for LGBTQ students, but the truth is, district schools are among the worst offenders. Ron Matus, redefinED. Faith is being used by some private schools to discriminate against LGBTQ students. That argument is wrong. You’re allowed to believe anything you want. You shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate with public money. Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel.  What does it say about us as a country that a South Carolina school principal must go to such extraordinary lengths as taking a second job to help his students and their families? What does it say about the priorities of the world’s richest nation that its teachers must routinely dip into their own purses and pockets to provide classroom necessities? Leonard Pitts Jr. If 2021 is to be different from 2020 for families of school-aged children, policymakers, parents and educators must have a conversation about bullying – not from 4th-graders on the playground, but from the education special interest groups that are pushing parents around. Jonathan Butcher, redefinED. Enrollment in Florida high school physics and chemistry classes is continuing to decline. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.