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After years of scrutiny, Miami-Dade schools reviews discipline policies in response to grand jury

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Matias J. Ocner / Miami Herald
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Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres says he's taking seriously the findings of a statewide grand jury that found the district is underreporting fights among students and other school safety incidents.

For years, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has faced scrutiny for its so-called “Student Success Centers” — alternative sites for students facing suspensions that some say left kids without adequate instruction or counseling. Now, MDCPS is putting the success centers on hiatus and reviewing its student discipline policies, after state officials accused the district of “laundering” school safety data.

MDCPS has significantly underreported and misrepresented the cases of school safety incidents like fights and criminal activity — as well as the number of student suspensions — according to the statewide grand jury report that was published last month.

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The grand jury was launched in the wake of the 2018 Parkland shooting and the bulk of its findings focused on Broward County Public Schools — but not all of it.

“Miami-Dade has had incidents wherein schools report hundreds of battery or fight incidents one year and zero the next,” the grand jury report reads in part. “For 2017-18, the entire District reported zero physical attacks.”

According to the grand jury, MDCPS’ underreporting creates a rosier — and inaccurate — picture of school safety in the nation’s fourth-largest school district.

“Clearly, something is amiss with the veracity of Miami-Dade data,” the report continues. “We have not found concrete evidence of intentional fraud committed by specific individuals (as we have elsewhere), but inaccuracies certainly abound and a sea of red flags continue to wave.”

MDCPS Superintendent Jose Dotres says he’s taking the findings seriously. Florida Department of Education officials say they’re monitoring his response to the investigation — even though it was completed in April 2021 — months before Dotres took over the job from former Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

“[U]pon receipt of the Twentieth Statewide Grand Jury’s Final Report, I immediately directed my staff to initiate a comprehensive review and analysis of all disciplinary models currently implemented in M-DCPS, including indoor suspensions, outdoor suspensions, and the Student Success Centers,” Dotres wrote to Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz on Sept. 9.

In a letter to Dotres on Sept. 2, FDOE Office of Safe Schools Executive Director Tim Hay argued that issues outlined by the grand jury appear to be ongoing.

“The district still engages in data laundering with regards to safety and discipline by misusing 'Success Centers',” Hay wrote. “From this date forward, if there is a violation of the student code of conduct that merits out-of-school suspension, you must ensure schools are properly coding the data.”

Hay said some administrators in the district are apparently continuing a Carvalho-era practice of sending kids home for misbehavior but not marking them as suspended.

Back in 2015, the then-superintendent called for an end to out-of-school suspensions. As WLRN reported at the time, despite the superintendent’s directive, “off the books” suspensions continued, while unexplained absences increased dramatically.

“Letters are still being shared with parents stating their child would not be permitted to return to school for several days; however, there is no mention of suspension,” Hay wrote, noting that state law requires districts to notify parents in writing within 24 hours of their student being suspended.

In response, Superintendent Dotres has put the success centers on hiatus while the district conducts an internal review.

“I took action to suspend the use of the Student Success Centers pending the outcomes of the aforementioned review,” Dotres wrote in his Sept. 9 letter to FDOE. “School-site administrators have been reminded that they have full authority to administer any and all appropriate disciplinary actions to students as outlined in our Code of Student Conduct, inclusive of outdoor suspension.”

MDCPS School Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon applauded Dotres’ decision. Gallon has raised concerns about the success centers for years — noting complaints from students and parents that the sites don’t offer meaningful instruction or behavioral interventions.

“Miami Dade County Public Schools cannot afford to babysit,” Gallon told WLRN. “We need to make sure that if students have been placed in an alternative educational setting — whether it's the day, three days or a week — that instruction continues to occur.”

“I'm patiently optimistic that we should see some positive changes,” Gallon said.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter