Nobody knows nuttin’. . .

Volusia County District Schools Interim Superintendent Tim Egnor instinctively uses a weird anaphora when describing official acts and omissions at district schools: “. . .more or less.”

The phrase means “approximately,” an inexact answer that is used to express vagueness or uncertainty – something more or less true, but not completely factual – an imprecise assessment.

In terms we can all understand, in the wake of a third internal investigation into academic misconduct at Mainland High School (which was conducted by the same Office of Professional Standards that pursued the first two inquiries) student’s and staff of Volusia County Schools are more or less victims of an organizational protection racket. . .

Using the “nobuddy knows nuttin’” defense, senior administrators circled the wagons and convinced district “investigators” that no one had a clue what was going on at Mainland, even as hundreds of students were given a fake Advanced Placement test in a cruel ruse that became known as the “placebo exam” fiasco, along with credible allegations that former principal Cheryl Salerno manufactured passing grades for student athletes out of whole cloth.

The district also examined what Area Superintendent Susan Freeman, whose area of responsibility included Mainland, knew and when she knew it.

According to an excellent report by the News-Journal’s intrepid Education reporter Cassidy Alexander, “In August, Freeman told investigators she did not know that Salerno was listed to teach a course, and she did not know that two teachers at the school, one of whom is her son, were working as counselors without certification.”

Apparently, Superintendent Freeman stood behind the “Not my job, man” defense when asked if she reviewed the master schedule to determine if educators were certified to present subject’s they were responsible for teaching.

Freeman reportedly claimed that vetting teacher certifications was the responsibility of Human Resources.

Of course, when asked, the district’s former Chief of Human Resources Dana Paige-Pender (who just last week was anointed Director of Human Resources for all of Volusia County government) said, “. . .she didn’t know about the out-of-field teachers or uncertified counselors at the school until the summer’s investigation. She recalled asking Salerno directly if the two employees in question were working as counselors, and Salerno denied it.”

Hell, even Amy Hall, director of student and government relations – which “supports” school counselor programs – claimed it was not her responsibility to ensure counselors were certified at that time – and she couldn’t even tell investigators who served as a counselor before the current school year.

Apparently, the actual administration of Volusia County Schools wasn’t in any senior administrator’s job description. . .

Somebody must have known what was going on, right?

I mean, in an organization with a budget approaching $1 Billion in public funds and responsibility for the education of some 63,000 students – someone must have been responsible for, I dunno, having a vague idea how the whole shebang was being operated?

Well, it appears everyone who is anyone in the Ivory Tower of Power at Volusia County Schools seems to agree that former chief academic officer, Teresa Marcks – who, along with Ms. Salerno, received a blunt reprimand and a comfortable retirement for her role in the “placebo exam” scandal – was the sole source of the horrific corruption, dysfunction and cover-up of gross academic misconduct at Mainland High School. . .

My ass.

But we’ll never know for sure.

You see, district “investigators” did not interview Teresa Marcks or Cheryl Salerno – and I would be curious to know if they bothered to interrogate the one person who should have all the answers – former Superintendent Tom Russell – who also retired to escape the flames, then fled our horribly crippled district with a sack full of severance money – and now practices his odd brand of “leadership” at Flagler-Palm Coast High School.

However, Mr. Egnor assures us things are “more or less” typical at Mainland High School now that it’s under new management – so we can take comfort in that. . .

But what about the rest of the district? 

Following a hat trick of self-serving probes – the last of which, by Egnor’s own admission, was “to clear the names of people that I felt had done nothing wrong but were being lambasted” – that produced squat in terms of substantive information or personal accountability – how can we be sure another shit storm isn’t on the horizon?

How can we be certain more children won’t be victimized by fake exams, reverse-cheating or unqualified teachers and counselors?

The fact is, we can’t – because the same hands remain on the switch. . .

Now that Volusia County District Schools have investigated themselves three times without any determination of culpability – those of us who pay the bills are expected to merely accept the findings that no one in a position of responsibility was aware of the corruption, maladministration and utter dysfunction that has resulted in the complete destruction of Mainland High School’s academic reputation and the public’s trust.

That’s unacceptable.

No.  That’s unconscionable.

I’m just spit-balling here, but it is remotely possible these highly compensated senior administrators are more interested in protecting their own career track than ensuring the integrity of the system?

And where in the hell is the Florida Department of Education when we need them most? 

My God.

In my view, it is time for the Volusia County School Board – those we have elected to serve the best interests of students, staff and taxpayers – to get their hands dirty, cut the top off this rotten gourd, and allow our new superintendent to recruit a credible staff of senior administrators who won’t look the other way or develop a convenient memory when it comes time to accept accountability and protect the sanctity of our children’s education.

 

 

 

 

 

On Volusia: Where true loyalties lie

Since my earliest days The Daytona Beach News-Journal has been my newspaper of record.

I learned to read and digest the news of the day sitting with my father as he perused the Daytona Beach Morning and Evening Journal – something that became a bonding point for father and son – and taught me to think critically and form my own opinions on the issues that shape our lives and communities.

Through the years, the paper’s editorial stance has periodically swung – neither always in alignment with my views nor continually opposed – but it has consistently given me a thought-provoking focal point to consider the questions of the day.

Unfortunately, I fear the editorial board’s recent finger-wagging lecture to beach driving advocates in the still unfolding aftermath of the Volusia County legal department’s decision to unilaterally stop a two-hour historic race car parade on a short section of the beach in Ponce Inlet has exposed a critical bias that many of us would have preferred to ignore – something that has illuminated a growing fear that long-time readers have secretly harbored for some time now.

For months, loyal subscribers to The Daytona Beach News-Journal have watched in shocked silence as our hometown newspaper has dissolved into a jerry-built regional product.

We have stood horrified as the newsroom was decimated by cutbacks and layoffs – while senior reporters and editors have been swallowed up by the News-Journal’s parent, Gatehouse Media – and shook our heads in silence as the editorial page slowly transitions to a cut-and-paste from other markets ginned-up with an vague local connection.

As our local news dwindled to a trickle, regular readers have looked on as editor Pat Rice appeared in increasingly tight social alliance with those the paper has anointed our ‘Rich & Powerful.’

Photographs regularly appear in the online edition of Mr. Rice rubbing shoulders at ostentatious galas with our high and mighty oligarchical overseers who repeatedly corrupt each election cycle with astronomical campaign contributions from a host of personal and corporate entities that make a mockery of campaign finance rules – and backslapping with the same tired and wholly co-opted politicians they repeatedly return to office.

Look, I won’t presume to Tell Mr. Rice who he should associate with – but the optics suck – especially when his social circle comprises a ‘who’s who’ of the ‘movers and shakers’ who repeatedly access public funds to reduce overhead on private projects and should be the focus of his news organization.

I like Pat Rice.  He is an inherently good man, and although our opinions on the issues may differ, I appreciate how he tries hard to remain competitive in an increasingly desperate print news market.

During good times and bad, I have been a staunch supporter of The Daytona Beach News-Journal – I still am – and have repeatedly gone to the mat with those who disparage the outstanding reportage and in-depth investigative journalism that has brought us clear insight into the many local issues that have become so detrimental to our lives and livelihood.

But Sunday’s editorial, “In Volusia beach driving battle, stop depicting allies as foes,” took a more offensive tone – one that besmirched the hard work and dedication of beach driving advocates while championing the self-serving efforts of those money-grubbing insiders who seek to turn our public beach into a semi-private marketing tool for speculative developers.

It was hurtful.  It was uninformed.  It was wrong.

And, for many of us who have spent our lives here – it was personal.

In my view, for decades, uber-wealthy political insiders like His Majesty Hyatt Brown and his coterie of brown-nosing lickspittles have used the clout of various civic organizations, secret societies and their lopsided studies to support their gilded idea that the World’s Most Famous Beach – which was literally founded on our century-old heritage of beach driving – will always be nothing more than a honky-tonk shithole unless and until we acquiesce to their selfish idea that a traffic free beach is the panacea for our civic and social ills.

So, in the mid-1990’s, amid declining occupancy and average daily room rates in beachfront hotels, Volusia County removed cars from a one mile stretch of beach between International Speedway Boulevard and Seabreeze on the promise it would revitalize our core tourist area.

It didn’t.

Now, among declining occupancy and average daily room rates, our ‘powers that be’ stand suspiciously idle as the continued economic strangulation of our core tourist area continues.

And the war on beach driving by those with the ability to purchase political representation – from Let Volusia Vote to the Hard Rock Daytona debacle – continues unabated.

Anyone who thinks County Attorney Dan Eckert and his staff have been “fighting and fighting and fighting” to preserve beach driving is delusional – or has simply stopped paying attention to local issues.

As an example, if you take the time to compare Volusia County’s federal Incidental Take Permit – which allows beach driving while protecting sea turtles and wildlife – with St. Johns County’s, for instance, it becomes immediately clear that those who the News-Journal touts as “allies” have used their misshapen, hand-crafted permit like a weapon for years – even as those bought-and-paid-for chattel on the Volusia County Council gave more of our heritage away to over-hyped theme hotels and here-today-gone-tomorrow developers who never seem to make good on their promises.

Perhaps the News-Journal’s editorial board should read its own reporting. There’s a good reason many Volusia County residents no longer trust their government – or those handmaidens of the “Rich & Powerful” in the county’s legal department. . .

According to the News-Journal’s condescending editorial:

“Always, always, always: Volusia County is depicted as the enemy. That’s just wrong. If beach activists don’t forge a working partnership with the county team that’s been defending beach driving, or at least stop lobbing accusations and leaning on County Council members to rein in their “bureaucrats,” beach driving will be endangered by needless and misinformed strife.”

That hyper-dramatic horseshit doesn’t wash – not when the United States Fish & Wildlife Service – the very federal agency that issues and oversees Volusia’s Incidental Take Permit – have publicly announced it supports the special event.

And, for the past eight years, so did Volusia County government. . .

A shocking revelation that was completely contrary to what we – and our elected officials – had previously been told by County Attorney Eckert.

In my view, the crude demise of the Historic North Turn Legends Beach Parade exposed the depth to which our weaponized county attorney, and those wealthy insiders he serves, will go to maintain their iron-fisted control as a means to pursue their ultimate goal of removing beach driving in the name of the Almighty Dollar.

Time and again – from beach driving to Amendment 10 and a hundred points in between – Volusia County government has proven where its true loyalty lies.

And it is not with those of us who pay the bills and are expected to suffer in silence as the wants and whims of the few consistently outweigh the needs of many.

Now, it appears The Daytona Beach News-Journal has exposed its own not-so-subliminal bias as well. . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angels & Assholes for October 4, 2019

Hi, Kids!

It’s time once again to turn a jaundiced eye toward the newsmakers of the day – the winners and losers – who, in my cynical opinion, either contributed to our quality of life, or detracted from it, in some significant way.

Let’s look at who tried to screw us – and who tried to save us – during the week that was:

Asshole           Consolidated-Tomoka Land Company

The Halifax area isn’t known for our dedication to historic preservation – especially once the “Rich & Powerful” get dollar signs in their eyes. . .

That was the fate of the 121-year-old First Baptist Church in downtown Daytona Beach.

Last Sunday, parishioners said goodbye to the sanctuary, many singing hymns through tears and using markers to scrawl notes and messages memorializing times gone by – a eulogy to a holy place that has met their spiritual needs for generations.

In coming weeks, First Baptist will meet the same fate as the nearby First United Methodist Church on Bay Street, whose beautiful mosaic mural of Jesus ascending unceremoniously fell to the wrecking ball last year.

The destruction of these historic churches was made necessary by Consolidated-Tomoka Land Company’s mysterious “Project Delta” which, we’re told, will bring a grocery store, 300 more “luxury” apartments, a 400 car parking garage and mixed use space in support of His Majesty Hyatt Brown’s “game changing” glass-and-steel headquarters building.

(Project Delta?  Why does every public/private partnership in Volusia County have to read like a Tom Clancy novel?)

Look, I’m not an overly religious sort – just another wayward lamb lost in the wilderness – but there was a time when churches and synagogues formed the foundational bedrock of a community.

A beacon of faith during difficult times, a place that marked the important milestones of our lives – weddings, baptisms, funerals – always serving as a spiritual lighthouse for those in need.

But not anymore.

We’ve “grown” past all that.  The profit motives of our ‘movers & shakers’ prevail over everything else now – physical, spiritual or historical.

I’m not an expert, but couldn’t Sir John Albright and his crack staff of civic visionaries at Consolidated-Tomoka find a way to incorporate the spiritual needs of a community in their top secret/compartmented plans for the rest of us?

No money in it? 

Off the tax rolls? 

Whatever. . .

Look, Mr. Albright is free to do what he wants on the property his company purchased – and the First Baptist congregation is moving to new digs on Tomoka Farms Road soon.

I get it.

But what happened to the idea of comprehensive planning and community involvement?

There was a time when building a ‘new’ downtown involved a plan to determine contemporary and emerging needs, identify issues, state goals, evaluate alternatives and involve civic organizations, merchants and ordinary citizens in the process – rather than classifying the project behind some weird cryptonym. . .

This is where we make our home, so we all have a vested interest.

Why the Secret Squirrel bullshit?

Our community’s historic places in downtown Daytona and beyond are being bought up and torn down in the name of “progress,” and according to The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s editorial board, we should be happy about it.

“A dynamic, flourishing downtown will always include some pangs of loss — but also, a surge of optimism that a once-bustling part of the city will soon see green shoots of resurrection, including the glossy new headquarters of Brown & Brown Insurance taking rapid form just a few blocks away. It’s a fitting next chapter for the church properties, and a welcome sign of hope and optimism for Daytona Beach — one fueled, not by government, but by private investors’ faith in the potential at the heart of the city.”

A fitting next chapter?

God help us. . .

Angel               Volusia County Councilwoman Billie Wheeler

Look, I admit it.

I give Councilwoman Billie Wheeler and her colleagues on the dais of power in DeLand a lot of grief.

Most of it deserved. . .

But this week, Ms. Wheeler stood tall in her defense of thousands of her long-suffering constituents who gather each year for the Historic North Turn Legends Beach Parade – a grassroots event honoring the storied history of NASCAR’s old beach circuit – and the daring drivers who paved the way for contemporary stock car racing and the growth of the Halifax area.

In many ways, the parade represents the very roots of our community.

Like many things here on Florida’s Fun Coast, the beach driving aspect of the event apparently doesn’t comport with the wants and whims of oligarchical insiders who have fought the tradition for years. . .

So, earlier this year, our weaponized County Attorney Dan “Cujo” Eckert – who has made a cottage industry suing taxpayers with our own money – unilaterally denied a permit for the event in 2020, citing a violation of Volusia’s federally mandated Incidental Take Permit, which allows our century-old heritage of beach driving while protecting sea turtles and other wildlife.

Even after the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, which issues and administers the permit, publicly said they support the special event – Ol’ Dan wouldn’t take ‘Yes’ for an answer – fighting tooth-and-nail with the help of his deputy, Jamie Seaman, to make sure the incredibly popular parade won’t roll next Speed Weeks.

Earlier this week, Mr. Eckert issued a long-winded memorandum to the Volusia County Council essentially warning that they do not have the authority to permit the parade – painting our elected officials into a very tight corner with the oppositional legal mumbo-jumbo Dan has become famous for.

You see, when it comes to fighting beach driving advocates, Cujo Eckert attacks like a rabid badger – but when his skills are needed to support any and all efforts to keep vehicles off the beach – he’s the best lawyer real estate developers, political insiders and out-of-state meddlers never paid for.

For instance, Mr. Eckert spent yesterday in Tallahassee arguing before an appeals court to overturn the will of voters in the ongoing Amendment 10 fiasco. . .

The stakes are high.

In my view, many of these same “Rich & Powerful” forces that have vigorously opposed beach driving have engaged in the ongoing economic strangulation of our core tourist areas as a cruel punishment for our fight to protect beach access – a drastic means of saying, “See, we were right and you were wrong – now, give up and let us capitalize on our “vision,” you peons. . .”

That’s why I was so incredibly proud of Ms. Wheeler’s efforts to ferret out the truth, rather than accept the same tired threats that Mr. Eckert and his staff have used so effectively for years.

To her credit, Councilwoman Wheeler asked the hard questions – like why, after eight years, the county is suddenly so vehemently opposed to what she called an “economic booster” without any legal objection from Mr. Eckert?

She also asked why previous councils offered unanimous votes to approve the event without any hint of concern from the legal department?

Of course, the “system” immediately circled the wagons, with Deputy County Manager Seamans all but calling Ms. Wheeler a liar – claiming that the previous votes were merely to permit alcohol at the event, not to approve the beach parade. . .

(So, they voted to allow alcohol at an event that wasn’t permitted?  Weird. . .)

Thus began the county’s patented process of marginalizing and discrediting anyone who steps out of line and dares champion the needs of their constituents against the iron will of Volusia County government.

In keeping with her craven tradition of having a politically expedient way out of any issue – the always arrogant Councilwoman Deb Denys requested that county staff also compile an accounting of how much Volusia County spends on the annual event – claiming she wants “all the information” on the council’s October 15 agenda.

You don’t need me to tell you how this is going to go. . .

Still, I appreciate Ms. Wheeler’s strength of character and willingness to fight for her constituents under such withering criticism from our politically unaccountable lawyers and staff.

Thank you for the effort.  That takes guts.

Asshole           Volusia County School District

This week, after yet another five-alarm foul-up, the Volusia County School District was suggested for this auspicious title by an observant Barker’s View reader.

I wholeheartedly agree. . .

Given a budget approaching $1 Billion – and the dangerous times in which we live – one would think that Volusia County Schools would have both the means and motivation to live up to their sacred obligation to protect our precious children from harm.

Like many of you, I have young family members who attend district schools, so imagine my utter horror when I learned of two high profile security breaches last week.

The first involved a 13-year old student at Galaxy Middle School in Deltona who was arrested after he apparently threatened to shoot up the school, something that was reported by a parent, not school officials.

Then, an intoxicated intruder with an “extensive criminal record” armed with a knife road a bicycle onto the campus at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange – completely unchallenged – then meandered into an occupied classroom and took a seat.

Jesus.

The district’s initial response to a shocked media was ham-handed, at best. . .

Speaking to the News-Journal’s Education reporter Cassidy Alexander, Interim Superintendent Tim Egnor said, “To convert (campuses) into minimum security prisons, which is the reality of this situation, it involves a whole level of thinking that is very different than what we’re used to.  It is very hard to prevent with 100% certainty unless you just had a ring of security people hand-in-hand around the entire 10 acres.”

On Wednesday, the Interim Superintendent polished the turd during a press conference, announcing that the district is once again investigating itself, and yammering about “retraining,” “physical changes,” “no rush to judgement,” “can’t comment on possible discipline,” blah, blah, blah.

But when he claimed these incidents were the result of “overthinking” I shot a healthy sip of my noontime highball through my nose. . .ugh.

Look, this district-wide lackadaisical approach to our children’s safety is nothing new.

Last summer, after four public records requests to district officials, I was finally able to review the qualifications of those who had been appointed to oversee the state mandated Guardian program at that time.

In turn, I discovered that two of the three individuals identified as safety and security specialists couldn’t statutorily qualify for the position they were charged with managing. . .

I sounded the klaxon, but nothing changed.

Look, I may be just a shut-in with internet access – certainly not a self-styled school safety and security expert like our district’s staff of posers – but I happen to know that credibility is paramount to achieving the internal and external buy-in required for effective security planning.

In my view, it’s time for the Volusia County School Board to pull their heads out of their ass – hold someone responsible for these glaring security lapses – then find a professional security director who actually knows something about “building and managing” an effective safety and security program for the thousands of students and staff who deserve better.

This is urgent.

Look, Interim Superintendent Egnor is a good guy.  He stepped up to fill an important role during a difficult time and his long legacy of service will not be stained by this shit-train of issues that has crippled Volusia County Schools and destroyed the public’s trust.

But this level of incompetence by senior staff members who have accepted the awesome responsibility of securing our schools simply cannot stand.

I implore Mr. Egnor to talk to current and former campus advisers, Guardians and other line personnel charged with security responsibilities.  If they trust the Interim Superintendent – perhaps they will tell him the same stories they have told me and others.

Believe me – it’s a wake-up call.

Given the serious events of last week, the Volusia County School Board shouldn’t wait until a new superintendent is seated to begin a top-to-bottom review of the district’s clearly ineffectual security protocols – then jettison any senior administrator whose abject  incompetence failed Volusia County students and staff.

Angel               Daytona Beach Police Department

I spent a considerable part of my law enforcement career involved in the investigation of narcotics crimes – specialized work that requires an officer to master a wide range of disciplines – to include physical and electronic surveillance techniques, the ability to think quickly and change direction with little notice, effectively developing and managing confidential sources, maintaining operational security for long periods of time, even the art of safely working undercover.

It can be very tedious and demanding work, requiring a great deal of patience and perseverance to build often complex criminal cases against drug distribution networks that work very hard to keep law enforcement from connecting A to B.

Kudos to the Daytona Beach Police Department for their highly successful “Operation Clean Streets” – a five-month dedicated effort targeting street-level drug dealers that ultimately identified some 41 suspects.

I know firsthand the operational tempo and logistics required for an operation of this length – and I also the know the incredible gratitude residents feel when their neighborhood is liberated from the oppression of drug dealing and related nuisance crimes that destroy their quality of life.

According to reports, seven stolen firearms were recovered, along with nearly $3,500.00 in cash, 21 grams of cocaine, 305 grams of marijuana, 8 grams of heroin, 21 grams of methamphetamine and nearly 30 grams of ecstasy.

Thank you to Chief Craig Capri and his intrepid officers and staff on a job well done!

Quote of the Week

“If Florida really wants the best and brightest to enter teaching and stay in the profession, lawmakers need to improve pay as well as the treatment of teachers.”

–The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Drop bonuses and increase wages,” as adapted from a Gainesville Sun editorial, Wednesday, October 2, 2019

With Governor Ron DeSantis pushing for a much-needed across-the-board pay increase for Florida’s beleaguered teachers, perhaps he could take a minute from his busy schedule cutting ribbons, slapping backs and collecting campaign funds to examine the abysmal treatment of Volusia County students and staff?

Trust me, our district schools need outside intervention.  Now.

Clearly, the Florida Department of Education is content to sit on its thumb while the district is rocked by one catastrophic scandal after another – to include an active investigation by the United States Department of Justice over the district’s treatment of disabled children.

Never mind the “placebo exam” fiasco which destroyed the trust of an entire class of students – or the startling revelation that Mainland High School’s former principal manufactured passing grades for student-athletes – in my view, the shocking “security lapses” last week at Spruce Creek and Galaxy Middle deserve immediate intervention by state and federal authorities.

Look, if Volusia County Schools refuse to learn from the atrocity at Parkland and elsewhere, then an outside agency in a position to properly secure the lives of vulnerable students and staff simply must step in and take control.

Unfortunately, “retraining” and introspective audits only work in organizations that value professional standards and embrace the concept of accountability and responsibility.

Perhaps it’s time to relieve the jackleg frauds who masquerade as “safety and security specialists” in the highest echelons of Volusia County Schools and replace them with real experts who possess the personal and professional discipline to give this awesome responsibility the serious attention it deserves.

In my view, funding for raises and benefit increases is certainly necessary to attract and retain qualified teachers throughout the Sunshine State – but effectively securing the lives of our children and district staff is priceless – and immediately necessary.

And Another Thing!

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of Ponce’s Law, a grassroots effort born of the ghastly beating death of a Labrador puppy in 2017.

This week, we also learned that the piece of human excrement who was charged with this heinous crime plans to enter a plea to felony animal cruelty in the near future.  The suspect, Travis Archer, 46, faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000.00 fine on the third-degree felony when he is ultimately sentenced by Judge Sandra Upchurch.

Last year – thanks to the hard work of Debbie Taylor-Darino and her group of animal rights activists at Justice For Ponce –  State Representative Tom Leek of Ormond Beach introduced legislation which increases the sentencing score for persons convicted of animal cruelty, bringing this abominable breed of scum closer to the prison term they so richly deserve.

The law also allows a judge to prohibit anyone convicted of animal abuse from ever owning a pet again.

Unfortunately, Ponce’s Law won’t apply to Travis Archer. . .

Earlier this week, the Justice For Ponce organization took to the streets in front of the S. James Foxman Justice Center in Daytona Beach – just as they have done for the past two years – demanding punishment for Archer and calling attention to the prevention and prosecution of animal abuse.

Here’s extending our hearty congratulations to Ms. Darino and her brave activists at Justice For Ponce on successfully enhancing penalties for those monsters among us who would abuse innocent animals.

God’s work.

That’s all for me!  Have a great weekend, friends!

 

 

 

Volusia Schools: A Lack of Urgency

Given a budget approaching $1 Billion – and the dangerous times in which we live – one would think Volusia County Schools would have both the means and motivation to live up to their sacred obligation to protect our precious children.

Like many of you, I have young family members who attend district schools, so imagine my utter horror when I learned of two high profile security breaches this week.

The first involved a 13-year old student at Galaxy Middle School in Deltona who was arrested after he threatened to shoot up the school while on campus – something that was reported by a parent – not school officials.

Then, an armed and intoxicated intruder with an “extensive criminal record” walked onto the campus at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange – completely unchallenged – before entering an occupied classroom.

According to reports, “Officials said the teacher activated his emergency button located inside the classroom which said to send assistance there immediately.  The school was not put on lockdown and there was no code red call made.  A spokesman with the school district said at least some security protocol was not followed.”

Perhaps most disturbing was Interim Superintendent Tim Egnor’s cavalier response after some 2,500 students and staff at Spruce Creek had a very close call.

Speaking to the News-Journal’s Education reporter Cassidy Alexander, Egnor said, “To convert (campuses) into minimum security prisons, which is the reality of this situation, it involves a whole level of thinking that is very different than what we’re used to.  It is very hard to prevent with 100% certainty unless you just had a ring of security people hand-in-hand around the entire 10 acres.”

“There is a certain futility to the notion if you think any place could be 100% safe.”

He later described the personal and systemic failures that permitted an armed drunk free access to the campus as, “. . .just a comedy of errors. . .”

According to Mr. Egnor, we can take comfort in knowing the district is going to “learn” from its mistakes.

Bullshit.

That type of organizational growth only occurs where professional standards and the concept of responsibility and accountability actually mean something. . .

Look, this lackadaisical approach to our children’s safety is nothing new.

Last summer, after four public records requests to district officials, I was finally able to review the qualifications of those who had been appointed to oversee the state mandated Guardian program at the time.

Two of the three couldn’t qualify for the position they were charged with managing. . .

I sounded the klaxon, but nothing changed.

In my view, the credibility and vigilance of administrators is paramount to achieving the internal and external buy-in required for effective security planning, so I asked for the names and qualifications of those appointed by then Superintendent Tom Russell to provide for the safety and security of students and staff members.

Last July, I received the following information from Greg Aiken, the district’s Chief Operating Officer, which read, in part:

“I have 22.5 years of military experience and 15 years in the School District where 14 of those years has been building and managing the safety and security program for the district.  I am a certified FEMA and TEEX Adjunct Instructor  for the past 10 years teaching all facets of emergency management all over the US.” 

“We have identified three (3) employees that will have the duties as the School Safety Specialist to ensure we have back-ups when the others are on vacation or out sick.”

When I finally received the public records, I found that one of our school security experts began his career as a Band Director and most recently served as an ESE supervisor and assistant principle at schools in the district.

It is my understanding that this individual is no longer responsible for school security.

The bulk of the other “security specialist’s” law enforcement experience was limited to serving as an administrative secretary at the FBI’s New York field office. . .

According to her LinkedIn page – she remains the district’s Safety and Security Specialist.

Frankly, I don’t know who in the hierarchy at the district’s Ivory Tower of Power is actually responsible for our children’s safety today – do you?

In my view, it’s time for the Volusia County School Board to pull their heads out of their ass – hold someone personally responsible for these glaring security lapses – then find a professional security director who actually knows something about “building and managing” an effective safety and security program for the thousands of students and staff who deserve better.

Sheriff Mike Chitwood was right, “He could’ve had a gun.  He could’ve had a grenade.  He could’ve had anything.  After all we’ve gone through … all the training, the guardians, technology, it just goes to show it’s only as good as the people you put in place to follow it.”

In fact, a true security expert recently opined to me that the security failures at Spruce Creek and Galaxy Middle read like an excerpt from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report.

That’s frightening.

If, after 14-years of building and managing the safety and security program for the district, Mr. Aiken’s wholly inadequate protocols still permit an armed intruder to saunter onto a school campus and take up residence in an occupied classroom – while active threats go unreported to law enforcement – perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the district’s priorities and the effectiveness of certain senior administrators. . .

Superintendent Egnor should know that you can’t “retrain” a sense of urgency, situational awareness and attention to detail into people who already hold the awesome responsibility for safety and security – they either have it, or they don’t.

Given the serious events of last week, those ultimately responsible for our children’s safety – the Volusia County School Board – shouldn’t wait until a new superintendent is seated to begin a top-to-bottom review of the district’s clearly ineffectual security program.

In the preface to their comprehensive report to the Governor on the atrocity at Parkland, the Public Safety Commission wrote:

“Accountability starts at the top of every organization, and all leaders have an obligation to ensure not only that the law is followed, but that effective policies and best practices are implemented.  Even after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the implementation of new Florida law requiring certain safety measures, there remains non-compliance and a lack of urgency to enact basic safety principles in Florida’s K-12 schools. All stakeholders—school districts, law enforcement, mental health providers, city and county governments, funding entities, etc. — should embrace the opportunity to change and make Florida schools the safest in the nation.  There must be a sense of urgency—and there is not, across-the-board—in enhancing school safety.”

Sound familiar?

On Volusia: The tail wagging the dog

The idiom “The tail wagging the dog” describes a situation where an insignificant part of the whole – a person or group involved in something important – has too much influence and consistently reverses the dynamics of power.

The tenets behind this expression have been the governing factor in Volusia County politics for years.

A system that permits uber-wealthy insiders to control public policy by purchasing the rights to malleable politicians through massive campaign contributions – giving sway to individuals and industries who long-ago discovered the profit potential in underwriting private projects with public funds.

Regardless of the pursuit, it seems the wants and whims of those who can still afford political representation always outweigh the needs of those of us who pay the bills.

Then, when we ‘little people’ have the temerity to question the why of things, or take the initiative to develop successful events that benefit the community and contribute to the local economy, invariably, outside forces apply pressure to just the right part of Volusia County’s massive bureaucracy and We, The People are told to sit down and shut up.

Like an abusive suzerain, the ensuing heavy-handed governmental intrusion in our lives destroys our sense of place, crushes the volunteer spirit and undermines the intrinsic social benefits of community-based events.

Since 2012, a grassroots group of racing historians have organized, staffed and managed the Historic North Turn Legends Parade – an annual event during Speed Weeks celebrating the storied past of auto racing on the old beach course that was used prior to the advent of Daytona International Speedway.

The one-of-a-kind exhibition of vintage race cars on the sand creates a spectacular visual for the hundreds of spectators from around the world who gather in Ponce Inlet for the event.

Inexplicably, earlier this year, our weaponized County Attorney, Dan “Cujo” Eckert, unilaterally decided that the Legend’s Parade would not be permitted in 2020.

In July, Eckert sent a letter to the parade’s sponsors, Walt and Rhonda Glasnak, claiming that Volusia County had allowed the event by “mistake,” and that permitting vehicles on that section of the beach constituted a violation of the county’s Incidental Take Permit (ITP) issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service designed to protect sea turtle nests.

There was little ambiguity in the risk involved. . .

According to Mr. Eckert, permitting the parade could have the catastrophic effect of jeopardizing beach driving on the precious few miles that are still open to vehicles:

“The ITP must be renewed in 2030.  It would be ironic if an event whose purpose in part is to celebrate the history of racing on the beach factored in the ultimate demise of all vehicular access on the beach.”   

As it turns out, Mr. Eckert’s statement was complete horseshit.

Worse, it appears he knew it at the time. . .

I guess Ol’ Dan hadn’t banked on the fact that the intrepid Glasnak’s would ask for outside help from parade supporter and United States Congressman Bill Posey, who represents Florida’s 8th District in Brevard County.

A subsequent investigation by Representative Posey’s staff directly contradicted Mr. Eckert’s “explanation,” and proved conclusively that the United States Fish & Wildlife Service has essentially ceded decision-making authority for special event beach access to Volusia County.

In fact, the Fish & Wildlife Service reported it has supported allowing the parade each February – which is held outside turtle nesting season in compliance with the county’s federally mandated Habitat Conservation Program.

Not taking ‘yes’ for an answer, in a bizarre twist, Deputy County Attorney Jamie Seaman aggressively challenged the findings of the very federal agency who issued the permit – now claiming the parade violates state law governing vehicles on coastal beaches?

When Mr. Eckert’s shenanigans were publicly exposed by Representative Posey’s inquiry – several sitting Volusia County council members felt they had been intentionally duped.

Because they were. . .

Last week, Paul Zimmerman, president of Florida’s premiere beach driving and access advocacy, Sons of the Beach, met with Jennifer Winters, Volusia County’s Protected Species Specialist, who administers the Incidental Take Permit and Habitat Conservation Program.

According to Ms. Winters, in 21-years there have been no adult sea turtles killed on Volusia County beaches – none – and the remaining “take” is so negligible that county officials have received just one minor concern from the USFWS over the life of the permit.

In fact, according to Ms. Winters, the permit has been amended multiple times and the county has never been found out of compliance.

(I mean, if allowing the Hard Rock Daytona – with its 410-feet of traffic free beach – to detonate a professional fireworks display on the beach for its invitation only grand soiree for politicians and their benefactors on the first evening of turtle nesting season isn’t a violation, I doubt a well-managed two-hour parade poses a hazard. . .)

Despite the facts, Dan Eckert and his staff have wielded the Incidental Take Permit like a club.

Why would a publicly compensated attorney consistently misinterpret the federal permit to restrict beach access and intimidate citizens, bureaucrats and elected officials for years?    

In my view, Ol’ Dan is merely facilitating the objectives of those who truly control public policy in Volusia County.

Just like always. . .

For decades, uber-wealthy political insiders, to include His Majesty Hyatt Brown – under a variety of civic guises and political insulation façades – have vehemently opposed beach driving, believing that allowing speculative property developers to use “traffic free” beaches as a cheap marketing tool should take precedence over our heritage of public access.

From our oligarchical overlords and their professional flatterers on the dais of power – to the useless convention/visitors/tourism gurus and the marketing hacks they pay to tell them exactly what they want to hear – the entire “system” continues to push the goal of those with the financial wherewithal to control their environment: The effective privatization of our beaches.

To permit the Legend’s Parade in 2020 is to publicly admit that 21-years of scare tactics and legal bullying was all smoke-and-mirrors – a cheap Sword of Damocles hanging precariously over the heads of residents – a damnable lie which has been trotted out so many times that we have come to believe the hype.

Now that Mr. Eckert has been caught out, “county staff” would have us believe that he is somehow kowtowing to Shirley Reynolds – who filed the original federal lawsuit which resulted in the Incidental Take Permit and Habitat Conservation Plan over two decades ago – and is once again stirring the pot all the way from her home in Colorado. . .

Say what? 

It seems “Cujo” turns into a toothless lapdog when he’s up against anyone other than his own constituents. . .

According to The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Shirley Reynolds, a long-time New Smyrna Beach resident who now lives in Colorado, told The News-Journal that she would be “outraged, but not at all surprised” if the County Council elects to go against its attorneys views and allow the racing Legends parade to continue in an area of the beach where cars are not supposed to be.”

Of course, the “news” that Ms. Reynolds has once again stuck her nose into the issue gave our doddering fool of a County Chair, Ed Kelley, the perfect excuse to flip-flop and support Dan Eckert’s manipulation of the facts over the concerns of his constituents. . .

No offense – but who gives a shit what Shirley Reynolds thinks?

She had a bite at the apple – now, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service has spoken.

Dammit.

The Volusia County Council will have yet another opportunity to prove to their long-suffering constituents who really sets public policy when they take up the fate of this incredibly popular parade later today.

Will the tail once again wag the dog? 

Time will tell. . .

 

Photo Credit: The Daytona Beach News-Journal