Schools not tracking felons in classrooms

Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 1:11 a.m.
ORLANDO - The state of Florida and local authorities have no way of tracking juvenile convicted felons who have returned to high school, which some say is a safety problem.
The absence of information has some law enforcement concerned since state officials have no idea how many of the 11,932 recently released young felons, including 2,727 placed on probation after being convicted of violent crimes, are enrolled in school.
An Orlando Sentinel review of Central Florida's school districts found few with any centralized system for tracking how many felons walk their halls.
"I wish we had some type of notification system, but there is none," said Sgt. Mike Ross of the Lake County Sheriff's Office, who oversees school resource officers. "We're not notified by anyone. I'm not sure what the process is, but I'd like to see it improved for safety."
The safety of schoolchildren who attend classes with convicted felons became an issue in Polk County when a 17-year-old student with a felony criminal background was charged with raping a 15-year-old girl in the school auditorium.
The boy was convicted of armed robbery in 2001 and returned to Bartow Middle School. He was a student at Bartow High School in September 2003 when he was charged with kidnapping and sexual assault. He still is being held at the Polk County Jail.
"It's one thing to turn an adult felon lose with other adults, but you can't do that with children," said Chris Slick, who has a child in the 11th grade at Bartow High School. "Parents should have been told about this kid. We had no idea."
Florida law requires that classroom teachers be notified whenever a student has been placed in a probation or commitment program for a felony, but it does not require the same notice to other students, parents or even police officers assigned to the schools.
While state law mandates that school districts, counties, chiefs of police, sheriffs and the Department of Juvenile Justice enter into agreements for the purpose of sharing information on juvenile felons, there is no uniform way it is practiced, the Sentinel review showed.
Orange County school officials track students who are charged with felony crimes. According to juvenile-justice liaison Angel Wienecke, 355 students were found guilty of felonies in 2002-03, and, of those, 217 enrolled in schools.
Other Central Florida districts have difficulty producing reports.
In Polk County, for instance, schools are notified daily when children have been charged with crimes, but no one tracks what becomes of those children or how many are convicted, said Stan Foster, court liaison for Polk County schools.
"It would require lots of follow-up and lots of coordination," Foster said. "The manpower it would take, it would require at least one other person to be checking if not daily, at least periodically."
Brevard, Seminole and Lake counties track the number of students arrested and charged, which the law also requires, but when asked how many of those students were convicted, the districts could not say.
District officials in Osceola and Volusia counties know the number of felony convictions but can't say how many children are involved, since some may have been convicted of more than one crime.
Volusia district officials said each school can determine the number of adjudicated felons on its campus by checking a list each month. But Michael Schilsky, principal at Deltona High School, said he would be hard-pressed to find such statistics.
"We don't always know whether they're found guilty," he said.
The juvenile-justice department notifies schools when students who live in their districts have been released from detention facilities. But juvenile-justice officials concede they don't know where those children eventually enroll or whether they enroll at all.
"Mom could have figured it best for the child to go to a private school, or sent them to live with Dad in another state, or home-schooled them," said Catherine Arnold, juvenile-justice spokeswoman in Tallahassee. "Once they are released back home after completing their commitment to the department, we are not tracking that."

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