State orders Orange district to reveal who bought book, Florida college enrollment down, and more

Around the state: A Florida Department of Education employee is demanding that the Orange County School District reveal which employee ordered a controversial book for school libraries that was later removed by the district, Florida college enrollment is down 4.2 percent this spring, six Martin County middle school students who were photographed holding up signs that spelled out a racial slur have apologized, the Hernando County School Board is suing county commissioners over their decision to put a sales tax issue on the 2024 ballot instead of this year as board members requested, a flawed background check by the Polk County School District and a failure of the DOE to flag the personnel file of a former Osceola County teacher who was accused of sexual misconduct with a student led to the teacher being hired in Polk, two more K-8 schools are planned in St. Johns County, and an 11-year-old St. Petersburg middle school student becomes the youngest person in the nation to earn industry certification in drone safety. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, Broward: Thirty high school seniors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties won Silver Knight Awards for outstanding achievement. Another 90 were named honorable mention. More than 600 students from 100 schools were nominated for the awards. Each of the winners receives a $2,000 scholarship. Miami Herald. District police said a 13-year-old student will be arrested after attacking an assistant principal and a counselor at Riverside Elementary School on Thursday. WSVN. A 38-year-old woman was arrested last week after fighting with officials at the Bethany Christian School in Fort Lauderdale. She was charged with disorderly conduct, interfering with school functions, obstructing traffic, making threats and resisting arrest. WTVJ.

Orange: A state investigator who looks into teacher misconduct is demanding that the school district reveal who authorized the purchase of the book Gender Queer for several high school libraries. The book was removed in October after several complaints. In a letter to the district April 13, Ian Dohme, a Florida Department of Education employee, wrote, “This office is trying to find out who approved the book.” Dohme works for the department’s Office of Professional Practices, which  investigates allegations of teacher misconduct and pursues disciplinary action against educators found guilty. School board member Karen Castor Dentel called the demand inappropriate and unfair to an employee who simply bought a book that he or she thought could help students. Any burden should be placed on the district, Castor Dentel said, not an individual employee. Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach: Seniors at two county high schools have been chosen as U.S. Presidential Scholars, three of only 161 honored nationwide. Miles Wang, a student at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, and Alexander Stone from West Boca Raton Community High School, were recognized for their outstanding scholastic achievement. Kailey Worontsoff, also a Dreyfoos student, was named in the arts category. WPTV.

Polk: A flawed background check by the school district and a failure of the Florida Department of Education to flag the personnel file of a former Osceola County teacher who was accused of sexual misconduct with a student led to the teacher being hired in Polk County, according to a district review. In 2018, Wayne Ricks was accused of battery on a minor. He was acquitted, then landed a job at Haines City High School. In 2021, he was arrested and accused of sexually battering a 16-year-old student, and is awaiting trial. Lakeland Ledger.

Pinellas: Rhys Marriott, an 11-year-old student in Azalea Middle School’s Academy of Engineering program, has become the youngest student in the United States to earn industry certification in drone safety. Willie Reese, who heads the program, called the feat impressive. “I actually teach this over at St. Pete College and I see grown people that get flustered with it and even quit sometimes in the middle of the program. For these youngsters to be able to get through this and with the ease they do, it’s amazing to me,” he said. Azalea, in St. Petersburg, is one of just two schools in the nation to offer the Unmanned Safety Institute certification. WFTS.

Lee: In his first two weeks as superintendent, Christopher Bernier has met individually with school board members and promised to have district staff provide more information about plans that need board approval, and more time to consider those plans before voting on them. He also squelched a proposal to cut funding for marketing. “Our schools compete for enrollment,” he said. He’s also begun discussions with board members about a “proximity plan” that could reduce transportation costs by having students attend schools closer to home. Fort Myers News-Press. Teachers and support personnel ratify a contract agreement that raises starting pay and provides bonuses of up to $5,000 for teachers, and improves school bus driver pay to $17.50 an hour. WFTX. A 39-year-old Cape Coral woman was arrested after she allegedly threatened to attend a high school graduation with a fake bomb because her child was not graduating due to disciplinary issues. Fort Myers News-Press. WINK.

Seminole: Artificial intelligence technology that can detect guns and alert school and law enforcement officials is being tested at several district schools. District spokesman Michael Lawrence said the product from Pennsylvania-based ZeroEyes has worked since it was first introduced at Oviedo High School in January 2021, and its use is being expanded to about 20 campuses. WESH.

Collier: Twelve students from Immokalee will have paid internships this summer at two Physicians Regional Healthcare Systems locations, and 35 other 9th- and 10th-graders will attend the organization’s health-care summer camp at Florida Gulf Coast University. Both are initiatives of the Immokalee Foundation and the hospital to help students envision and start preparing for careers in the health-care field. “Just as our collective health care needs will increase in the future, these amazing young men and women are preparing today to be there for all of us when the time comes,” said Scott Lowe, chief executive officer of Physicians Regional. Naples Daily News.

Lake: Work began this week on a huge mural that will honor past, present and future Leesburg High School students. It’s made possible through a grant obtained by the Florida Education Association teachers union for mural projects in Lake, Polk and Okeechobee counties. The program is called We Paint Our Path, and it aims to “empower school communities to come together, co-create a vision for their school, and design and execute a public mural inspired by their vision.” Students and members of the community are doing the work that area muralists Drake Arnold and Andrew Raymond helped plan. Daily Commercial.

St. Johns: Two more K-8 schools are planned to be built in the next two years to accommodate enrollment growth in the northwestern part of the county. The student population has grown 7 percent this year and in the past 10 years the district has added 13,000 students. The two schools, going into the Beacon Lakes and River Town neighborhoods, and the previously announced K-8 in the Shearwater neighborhood, are expected to open by the fall of 2024. Total cost for the three schools is projected to be $193 million, and will be paid from revenue generated by the extra half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2015. “These three schools will help immensely. We need at least two more, and then after that, more than that, but we’re getting there. And … three is a great big help,” said school board member Beverly Slough. WJXT.

Okaloosa: A power transformer blew out three-quarters of the way through Fort Walton High School’s graduation ceremony Wednesday night at Steve Riggs Stadium, plunging the field into darkness. Those attending the ceremony immediately held up cell phones for illumination, and two sheriff’s deputies brought vehicles onto the field to allow all 400 graduates to receive their diplomas. Northwest Florida Daily News. WMBB. The school year began with extreme staffing challenges because of COVID-19 quarantines, Superintendent Marcus Chambers said in his recap of the year. But those have diminished with higher pay for substitute teachers and bus drivers, and now the district is looking forward to summer construction projects to better secure schools and create more space to keep up with enrollment growth. WEAR.

Alachua: Vedant Karalkar, a 17-year-old Eastside High School senior, has been named one of five finalists in the national Genes in Space competition to have their DNA science experiments carried out on the International Space Station. Karalkar’s topic is entitled, “Measuring the phytohormone ethylene in space-grown plants.” Finalists will present their experiments for consideration July 25-28 at the ISS Research & Development Conference in Washington, D.C. Mainstreet Daily News.

Santa Rosa: District officials have posted their first job listing for a school guardian. Florida established the program, which trains and arms non-law enforcement guardians to help protect schools, after the 2018 Parkland school shooting. District safety director Daniel Hahn said any guardians hired would supplement existing school resource officers. Pensacola News Journal. WEAR.

Hernando: School board members are suing county commissioners for denying the district’s request to put the renewal of the half-cent sales tax surcharge on the ballot this November. Commissioners, who must approve placing the tax on the ballot, instead decided to put it on the November 2024 ballot. The lawsuit seeks to clarify which governing body gets to choose when the measure goes before voters. School board attorneys contend that state law grants the authority of when a referendum goes on the ballot with the governing body. Commissioners disagree, saying the law requires them to approve the request but does not specify the timing. Hernando Sun. Tampa Bay Times.

Martin: The six Hidden Oaks Middle School students who were photographed holding up signs that spelled a racial slur have apologized in a letter to the community, released by the mother of one of the students. “We were wrong and we made a big mistake when we spelled out that derogatory word. We clearly didn’t understand the full impact of it, and how it hurts so many people,” the one-page letter said. “We thought that word is much like other curse words, but it’s not like other curse words. We now know there’s nothing funny about it. We were not thinking how this terrible word has hurt so many people for so long.” TCPalm. WPTV.

Colleges and universities: Undergraduate enrollment in Florida colleges and universities was down 4.2 percent this spring, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That mirrors the nationwide decline of 4.7 percent this spring and 4.9 percent in 2021. Florida counted 842,834 students this spring, a decline of 36,895 from 2021. State four-year colleges reported a decline of 6.4 percent, while enrollment in two-year schools was down 3.5 percent and private schools saw a 1.9 percent drop. Politico Florida.

School safety improvements: Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that investigated the Parkland school shooting, said in an interview this week that school safety has improved since that 2018 attack. He acknowledged it’s not possible to prevent another school shooting, but said, “I think there is still room to harden the campuses, fortify the schools and to make sure we’ve got the resources in place that will stop the event as quickly as it begins.” Tampa Bay Times. A Brevard Ph.D. student has kept a database of school shootings since 1970. Florida Today.

More on FSA testing: Reports from districts around the state on the results of the 3rd grade Florida Standards Assessments reading test. WFLA. TCPalm. WQCS.

March for Our Lives: March for Our Lives, a group started by students who survived the 2018 Parkland school shooting and advocates for gun control legislation, has scheduled marches June 11 in Parkland, Miami, Orlando and nearly 100 other cities around the country in the wake of the Texas school shooting. Sun SentinelWLRN.

Around the nation: A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said Thursday that the gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde this week was not confronted by authorities as he approached the school and walked through what was apparently an unlocked door. He could not say why 40 minutes to an hour elapsed between the time 18-year-old Salvador Ramos entered the school and when he was shot dead by a U.S. Border Patrol officer in the classroom where the victims were killed. Associated Press. Miami Herald.

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BY NextSteps staff