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Leon's school board could decide Tuesday whether to fund a local council addressing gun violence

Leon Sheriff Walt McNeil at a roundtable meeting
Used with permission
Leon Sheriffs Office
Leon Sheriff Walt McNeil at a roundtable meeting

Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil sees the school district as a key partner in an effort to lower gun violence in the community. Most of the perpetrators and the victims of gun crimes also have a history of expulsions, dropping out, or being sent to an alternative school.

McNeil is trying to create a council on men and boys to focus support for those deemed at risk of committing crimes. And the school district will likely vote tonight on whether to approve the sheriff’s request for $70,000 to help staff the council. Yet there’s a fine line between just how much information the school district can share.

McNeil says a lack of coordination between different agencies has been a problem in the past and Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna is enthusiastic about the new council’s potential for partnership.

“There’s a lot of conversation about what is the responsibility of our public schools, and what’s the responsibility of the parents and the community and where is the line," said Hanna in a recent interview with WFSU.

During a previous school board meeting, Hanna voiced support for sharing information that can help the council identify students who may need help. When asked about what student information will be shared, Hanna said the district won't share anything that could be used as a "gotcha" for families.

“We’re not going to use you not going to school or trying to get information as a reason to impose law sanctions on a child. That’s not the purpose. That’s why we want to separate and create an entire council on men and boys that would then work with the school system, work with the sheriff's department work with DCF to identify who these kids are, and then try to knock on doors to get their families the help they need for their child.”

Federal student privacy laws limit the release of student information to the students and their parents and there has to be written consent for the release of records. The law also allows others to access student information without consent— like cases where records may be part of a legal issue, in instances of health or safety, or when requested by state and local authorities within the contest of the juvenile justice system.

That hasn't stopped the relationship between school districts and law enforcement from falling under scrutiny. The Tampa Bay Times last year reported on a program in the Pasco County Sheriff's Office that relied on student records to identify kids who could be considered at-risk. The program resulted
in kids being singled out for additional surveillance.

McNeil says his council will be different. For one, once he gets it started, it will be autonomous, and the information it gathered will be used to get in touch with parents, not children.

"That’s one thing about this that’s hand in glove, it’s the family and the child. So more directly, the kids will lead us to the families, and from the families, we’ll try to find the interventions.," he said.

Tallahassee’s gun violence is not new. Previous efforts to address it— like law enforcement initiatives, and city and county task forces—haven’t staunched the problem. There have been several shootings and homicides within the past week alone. Two weeks ago the Leon County Sheriff’s office announced the arrest of a Godby student for having a gun at school, and Hanna recently attended a funeral for a Rickards student who was shot and killed.

“And I watched all those kids walk up to look at that young man lying in that casket. And it broke my heart," he said.

The Sheriff’s office released its “Anatomy of a Homicide” report last year, confirming what was already known—most of the perpetrators and victims of gun violence locally are Black boys and men between the ages of 15 and 24. The report also notes many of the perpetrators, some 85% of them—had been expelled or placed in an alternative school.

The Sheriff doesn’t plan to lead the council, but he is working hard to get it up and running. The problem, said McNeil, has festered long enough.

“I realize too that not all my staff believes this is an area a sheriff needs to be in. Part of what I am seeking to do is increase the level of awareness and engagement. And 'Anatomy of a Homicide' has changed that.”

McNeil says since the report came out, he’s seen more discussion recently about local violence than he did when first elected. The Sheriff warns the council is NOT a solution—but he is hoping it will be a start to finding one.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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