- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Nov. 2

The Miami Herald on state mental hospitals:

At this point in the state’s tawdry history of caring for its most vulnerable and troubled residents, the only surprise about the horrific conditions inside Florida’s hospitals for the mentally ill is that they are not a surprise.

This is the state, after all, where more than 500 children under state supervision died from violence, abuse and neglect over six years. Where the prison system harbored murderers on the payroll, corrections officers who lorded their authority over inmates with torture and violence. Where too many staffers in the juvenile-detention system still wait too long before summoning medical care for sick or severely injured teens.

So, no, it is not surprise that reporters for the Tampa Bay Times/Sarasota Herald-Tribune exposed the unbridled - and increasing - violence in state-funded mental hospitals, overseen by the Department of Children & Families. The complete and total fear of staffers who tend to unpredictable patients. The seemingly never-ending budget cuts and the severe understaffing.

At the same time, the treatment patients require if they are to have any hope of living a productive life barely exists. Just between 2011 to 2013, former DCF Secretary David Wilkins oversaw $61 million in cuts from the hospitals, reporters found. That was more than 15 percent of funding - and in addition to $35 million in cuts two years before. Hospitals eliminated almost a third of their workforce. Counseling and training classes were eliminated, leaving patients with little chance of recovery and staffers in danger from the most unstable among them.

And, once again, state officials, including lawmakers, have rigged the whole thing to ensure that violent incidents are under-reported, shielded from public scrutiny - even from families desperate to find out about loved ones. It’s a reprehensible perpetuation of state agencies’ “hear, see and speak no evil” approach to its care of children, seniors, prisoners, the physically challenged and mentally ill.

Little of this started with the Scott administration currently in office, but there’s been little reform, either. In 2005, DCF told hospitals that they didn’t have to disclose most patient injuries. Despite officials’ desire to know as little as possible about what was happening on their watch, investigators for DCF itself and the Agency for Health Care Administration waved huge red flags about staffing shortages and an increase in compensation claims tied to a rise in violence at the hospitals.

And 10 years later, current DCF administrators seemed flummoxed by the reporters’ disclosures of conditions in what can only be called hellholes. But they shouldn’t have been. DCF’s own numbers revealed a 45-percent increase in violent incidents at its mental hospitals since 2008. One official responded that they track numbers “daily, weekly, monthly.” Still, the hard facts seemed to elude even them.

Such discouraging bafflement on the part of DCF’s top administrators doesn’t bode well for the chance of real reform coming from within. As in the case of the hundreds of children who died in DCF care, outlined last year in the Herald’s Innocents Lost series, or that of prison-facility deaths, also disclosed by the Herald, this latest challenge needs a champion - champions, really - to step forward and push for new laws and policies that confront the conditions that have led to state-funded atrocities. The most vocal advocates should be those who labor in the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol.




Oct. 31

Ocala Star-Banner on standardized testing:

Standardized testing was supposed to bring greater accountability and transparency to schools, but has instead caused confusion and dissension.

Testing should help identify low-performing students and schools in order to help them improve. But in Florida as in other states, flawed results are being used to punish teachers and schools while failing to assist educators and parents in helping struggling students.

On Tuesday, Marion County parents received preliminary information about their children’s performance on the 2015 Florida Standards Assessment. The information shows how students’ FSA results compared to others in the state, but not whether they actually passed.

The problem is that the Florida Board of Education won’t determine the scores indicating whether a student passed until at least January. Under a preliminary recommendation, just more than half of Florida students would pass the math and English exams in most grades - and some board members are pushing for even tougher scoring.

The state is moving forward with grading schools, teachers and students based on the FSA, despite a third-party review that found problems in “just about every aspect of the administration” of the tests. In addition to widespread technical problems, the review found only about two-thirds of test questions were aligned with state standards in some subjects. We are not making this up.

The state’s superintendents and groups representing parents, teachers and school boards have called for pause in using the FSA in high-stakes decisions and a review of the state’s accountability system. Yet state education officials and legislative leaders have held firm in plans to use the FSA to measure teacher performance and issue school grades.

It is almost as if they want our education system to fail. Some critics say that is exactly their motivation.

A number of superintendents attended last week’s Board of Education meeting in Orlando to press their concerns.

Florida is not alone in facing problems with excessive and inappropriate testing. A study released last week of the nation’s 66 largest school districts found tests are sometimes redundant, are poorly aligned with each other and standards, have minimal use for instructional purposes and often fail to assess student mastery of any specific content.

The two-year study by the Council of the Great City Schools found students were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12. Testing takes up 2.3 percent of classroom time for the average eighth-grader, according to the report.

It’s no wonder that President Barack Obama, whose administration has been a major proponent of testing, is now calling for testing to be capped at 2 percent of classroom time. But federal and state officials must do more to address the appropriateness of the tests and their consequences in addition to the amount of classroom time they occupy.

Florida has made changes big and small to its accountability and testing system on an annual basis, causing confusion and making it difficult to compare results over time. Rather than continuing to tweak the system, the state now needs to pause for a wholesale review.

Education officials and legislative leaders must prove the testing system is accomplishing its intended goals, bringing the same accountability and transparency to the system that is being asked of students, teachers and schools.




Oct. 30

Pensacola News-Journal on bear hunt:

Florida’s first big bear hunt in 21 years did more than “harvest” almost 300 of the state’s bears. It wounded the state’s tradition of open government and public records.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission called off the hunt Sunday, after just two days, with the score 295-0 in favor of the hunters.

One man was attacked by a bear near Eastpoint, on the eve of the hunt, but no injuries were reported among the 3,778 hunters who bought bear permits.

We wish we could say the same for the public record.

The FWC decided, unilaterally, that information on more than 100 licensees was exempt from public disclosure because the applicants are law-enforcement officers, court officials or members of families involved in the criminal-justice system.

Florida’s public-records laws provide that certain citizens can have their home addresses and other personal information redacted in driver licensing records of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. That’s to prevent criminal suspects, or their gang members, from tracking down a cop or prosecutor and trying to intimidate witnesses. And the FWC agency used DHSMV record to verify residency of more than 3,200 permit holders for the big bear hunt.

But Barbara Petersen, the attorney who heads the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said there’s a little legal snag. The confidentiality applies to DHSMV, the agency in which the driver licenses are registered, not to some other agency that asks to verify the records. When that happens, she said, the receiving agency needs a personal request from the license holder who wants his or her information kept private.

“Legally, they should not have redacted that information without a written request of confidentiality,” she told Tallahassee Democrat reporter Karl Etters last week. “Without the request for confidentiality, that information has to be released. They technically violated the law.”

FWC attorney Andrew Grayson said the redaction falls under a “memorandum of understanding” between the FWC and DHSMV.

A lot of animal lovers are upset with the state licensing the bear hunt. A lot of people living near wooded areas, who awaken to find their trash cans dumped out by ursine foragers, think it’s a great idea. And some people just like hunting, whether it’s deer or ducks or giant Burmese pythons.

That’s not what’s at stake here. The redaction of licensee information raises the important question, “WHY?”

Sure, the people who don’t like hunting anyway tried to write a note to some licensees and ask them to stay home this weekend. Whether the recipient is a cop or a carpenter shouldn’t matter to the state. Hunters who received a plea to spare the bear can just toss it on the heap of junk mail that passes through our mailboxes every day.

Now, that doesn’t mean that harassment of hunters should be tolerated. In fact it’s specifically forbidden in Florida statute 372.705. While the Tallahassee Democrat requested a list of the names of permit holders, we didn’t - and won’t - release the names of the hunters to the public.

We’ll admit that any exemption to the public-records laws arrives on our desk with a weighty presumption against it. Nobody wants to print the FDLE’s list of drug informants or tell where battered women are hiding from abusive mates. Nor is the public’s right to know harmed by not being able to look up the home address, phone number and family data of a police officer who’s going to testify against you in court, or the prosecutor and public defender on the case.

Several years ago, the Orlando Sentinel wanted to see some pictures of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt, after the Daytona wreck that killed him. The paper had no intention of publishing them, but wanted to hire forensic and medical experts who could render opinions about what happened. The Legislature responded with a hugely popular law exempting autopsy photos, and the like, from the official record.

It’s good to spare a grieving family from public discussion of circumstances in a violent death. And such evidence can still be sought by attorneys in a civil suit or criminal action, when warranted. But the unintended upshot of the photo ban is to say we just have to take the government’s word for it. Except for lawyers and detectives, in most cases, it’s pretty hard to question the official verdict.

And like us or not, that’s what the news media are supposed to do.

The public’s right to know (that’s not a need to know, but a right) trumps the FWC’s wish to withhold.



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