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Guilty plea in school shooting, mask challenge continues, civics changes approved, and more

Cruz pleads guilty: Nikolas Cruz admitted in court Wednesday that he shot and killed 17 students and employees at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County on Feb. 14, 2018, and wounded 17 others. “The maximum penalty is death,” Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer warned him. “You will not come out until you are no longer alive … You are facing a minimum best-case scenario of life in prison. Do you understand?” Cruz, now 23, simply answered “yes.” He apologized to the families of the victims, saying “I am very sorry for what I did and I have to live with it every day and that if I were to get a second chance I would do everything in my power to try to help others.” They called the apology insincere and an attempt to evade the death penalty. The case now moves to the penalty phase, in which a jury will decide whether Cruz will be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison. Jury selection is expected to begin Jan. 4. Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. Associated Press. NPR. WLRN. WPLG. WSVN. WFOR. WTVJ. Florida Politics.

Mask challenge continues: An attempt by the Florida Department of Health to have a court dismiss a challenge to its rule banning face mask mandates by school districts has been rejected by an administrative law judge. The decision means the hearing gets underway today in Tallahassee in the case brought by the Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Duval, Leon and Alachua school boards. Judge Brian Newman ruled Wednesday that the health department “has not cited any case that holds that the public official standing doctrine applies in rule challenge proceedings … or that any other law prevents a public official (or unit of government) from challenging a rule that substantially affects it in this administrative forum.” News Service of Florida. WFSU. WTXL.

Civics curriculum revised: A new rule governing civics education in schools was approved Wednesday by the Florida Board of Education. It directs the Florida Department of Education to require schools to teach K-12 students about the nation’s founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the characteristics necessary to make them “upright and desirable” citizens, and “how political ideologies, such as communism and totalitarianism, conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to preserving the United States constitutional republic.” News Service of Florida. WUSF. The board also decided that college students will have to pass a civics exam, similar to the nation’s citizenship test, to be eligible to earn a degree. Orlando Sentinel. The board repealed a law that prohibited state colleges from fielding football teams. Some schools are expected to initiate women’s flag football programs. News Service of Florida. Florida Board of Education chair Tom Grady faces a federal misdemeanor charge of “obstruction of navigable water” in the Florida Keys in 2017, which is punishable by up to a year in prison. Grady allegedly excavated or altered a channel of federal water without approval. His attorneys dispute the charge, saying he had multiple approvals from local, state and federal governments. The trial begins Nov. 22. Politico Florida. Florida Politics. Naples Daily News.

Florida vs. the feds: Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed Wednesday that Florida will do “whatever we can to thwart” any attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate parents who are alleged to have made threats or protested violently against school boards, teachers and principals about local school policies on face masks, vaccinations, critical race theory and other hot-button issues. Florida will focus on “fortifying parents’ rights,” he said. “We’re not going to let the federal government come in and impose bad policies or mandates on Floridians.” Tampa Bay Times. Politico Florida. Florida Phoenix. WFLA. WKMG.

Around the state: Miami-Dade’s school superintendent says the district’s face mask mandate could be loosened by the end of the month, Michael Burke is officially hired as superintendent of the Palm Beach County School District, a Palm Beach County school crossing guard has died of COVID-related complications, the state Board of Education approves a charter school for Leon County, Florida middle and high schools would have to offer computer science classes under a bill filed Wednesday for the 2022 legislative session, Pasco school board members decide to draw their own map of districts for board members instead of using the county commission’s, and three new schools are on the drawing board in Sarasota County. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: The district’s face mask mandate could be relaxed by the end of the month, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Wednesday. Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are down sharply, and the percentage of people vaccinated is up. Carvalho said the decision will hinge on COVID data released Friday by the Florida Department of Health, and the subsequent assessment of that data by the district’s medical advisory panel. Miami Herald. The school board voted 7-1 to declare October as LGBTQ history month in the district. Christi Fraga, the “no” vote, said, “I feel like there are things we should not impose.” Miami Herald.

Broward: The body of a Miramar High School senior was found Tuesday near his home. The death of Dwight Grant, 18, is being investigated as a homicide. Grief counselors are at the school to console his classmates and teachers. WPLG. Miami Herald. A 17-year-old student at Stranahan High School has been arrested and is charged with making threats on social media against several Broward schools. It was the second such arrest this week. Miami Herald. Sun Sentinel. WSVN. WTVJ.

Tampa Bay area: The cybersecurity company ReliaQuest is expanding its partnership with the education nonprofit 3DE to introduce a cybersecurity curriculum in several high schools in the Tampa Bay area. The courses will be available at Chamberlain and Hillsborough high schools in Hillsborough County, and Dunedin and St. Petersburg high schools in Pinellas, as well as a few others around the state. St. Pete Catalyst.

Orange: More than 300 Orange County students have joined Orlando’s new Junior Reserve Law Enforcement Program. Goals for the program are to interest high school students in law enforcement careers and create better relationships between officers and students. “I think it’s long overdue,” said Terrance Williams, who works in security for the school district. “There are lots of opportunities in law enforcement. You start out young, you can make a difference in the community.” Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach: Michael Burke has been officially named the superintendent of the school district. On Wednesday, the school board unanimously voted to approve a contract for Burke that runs through June 30, 2025. He’ll be paid $300,000 a year through June 2022, and have opportunities to earn raises in subsequent years. Burke, who had been the district’s chief financial officer, was named the interim superintendent in July after Donald Fennoy resigned. WPTV. WPEC. Maria Ortega, a sheriff’s office school crossing guard at Rosenwald Elementary in South Bay and Lake Shore Middle in Belle Glade for the past 14 years, has died of complications from the coronavirus. WPEC.

Pasco: School board members have rejected the county commission’s proposed redistricting maps and have drawn their own. The district and the county have had common district boundaries for the past 30 years, but the commission supported a proposal that would have drawn school board member Alison Crumbley out of her district. “We cannot use those maps because it would be contrary to the law,” board attorney Dennis Alfonso said this week. He said the law does not allow redistricting changes to affect the residence qualifications of any incumbent member. Tampa Bay Times.

Brevard: When school board member Jennifer Jenkins made national headlines by saying she was being harassed and threatened for advocating face mask mandates and supporting LGBTQ rights for students, some prominent Republicans questioned the validity of her claims. “I suspect this is all fabricated,” state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, wrote on Facebook. “I’d like to see the police reports. I want to know who these criminals are — if they actually exist.” But police reports and video recordings support Jenkins’ claims. In one report from early September, a Satellite Beach police investigator wrote, “The Jenkins household has been dealing with various forms of harassment over the last few days.” Jenkins’ neighbors also report that they have been threatened. Fine has denied any involvement in coordinating the activities, and added, “This is all crocodile tears to get attention. She’s a fraud.” Florida Today.

Volusia: A 13-year-old student at Creekside Middle School in Port Orange was arrested Wednesday for allegedly bringing a gun to school. The girl was charged with possession of a firearm on school property and possession of a concealed weapon. WKMG. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

St. Johns: A new high school under construction is closer to getting a name. The list of finalists has been narrowed to five for the school that has been called HHH: Bayside High, Beachside High, Ocean Valley High, St. Johns High and Sampson Creek High. The top five mascot name possibilities are Beasts, Barracudas, Kraken, Riptide and Triton. Final selections will be made Nov. 9. Blue, lime green and gray have been chosen as the school’s colors. The school, which will have a capacity of 2,100, is scheduled to open next fall. St. Augustine Record. WJXT.

Sarasota: Planning is underway for three new schools to accommodate population growth and overcrowding at some schools. A $120 million high school is planned to open in 2026 in Wellen Park for up to 2,000 students. Two K-8 schools are also in the works. One in the central part of the county will have the capacity of 1,200 students when it opens in 2025, and the other in the south part of the county can also take 1,200 students when it opens in 2027. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: Five district students have been chosen as semifinalists for National Merit Scholarship awards. They are Diego Carascosa, Colin McLaughlin and Rushi Patel from Vanguard High School, Sarah McGinley of Forest High and Casiel Smith of West Port High. National finalists will be named in February. WCJB. WGFL.

Leon: The Florida Board of Education has approved the creation of the Red Hills Academy Charter School in Tallahassee. The Leon County School Board denied the school’s application in April. The school took the issue to the Florida Charter School Appeal Commission, which recommended the state BOE overrule the Leon board. Wednesday it did, in a 6-0 vote. Red Hills is expected to open next August. Tallahassee Democrat. WFSU. The Child & Parental Rights Campaign Inc. has filed a lawsuit against the school board, alleging it withheld from parents information about actions school officials took regarding their daughter’s gender confusion. Tallahassee Reports.

Alachua: Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker is proposing a collaboration between the city and the school district to transform the old Duval Elementary School into a youth activity and cultural arts center. The school was closed in 2016 and has been leased out to nonprofits. School Superintendent Carlee Simon said the school is in an excellent location since it’s “in the center of a community that has many children that could benefit from a youth center that focuses on enrichment and sport.” Gainesville Sun.

Bay: An extended timeout teacher for the school district has been arrested after allegedly grabbing and breaking a 4-year-old’s arm on Oct. 13. Joshua Michael Bassett, 41, was charged with aggravated child abuse. Panama City News Herald. WMMB. WJHG.

Colleges and universities: The University of Florida is working to grow a new line of mandarin oranges, called Gator Bites, to challenge the mini citrus market domination of the California varieties such as Cuties and Halos. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. University of South Florida education researcher Denise Davis-Cotton is receiving an $8.5 million federal grant to create a teaching model incorporating arts education into instruction about cultural history, race and equity that can be used across the country. Tampa Bay Times.

In the Legislature: Florida middle and high schools would have to offer computer science classes under a bill filed Wednesday by state Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud. Elementary schools would also be encouraged to provide computer science instruction. The bill would reward computer science teachers with bonuses of $500 to $1,000. News Service of Florida. Florida lawmakers are struggling for answers to stem the reading declines posted by students during the pandemic. Twenty-three percent of 3rd-graders scored at the lowest level on state reading tests during the 2020-2021 school year, the highest rate since 2003. “We’ve got to do better,” said state Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, who is the Senate’s education budget chief. “We’ve got to find a different matrix where we do not allow a person to go from kindergarten to first grade, and through the school system, being a second-class citizen, having an image of themselves that’s way below what it should be.” Politico Florida.

Around the nation: White House officials said Wednesday that children 5 to 11 will soon be able to get vaccinated at their doctor’s office, a pharmacy and perhaps even their schools. Associated Press. The 74. The Biden administration said it is dropping a proposal to offer free community college from its spending bill. NPR. Associated Press. New research from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University suggests that having more police in schools does not reduce school shootings but does increase arrests and suspensions. Reason. Offering reading remediation to struggling middle school students leads to more of those students attending college and earning a degree, according to a study of Florida students conducted by the American Institutes for Research. The 74. Parents care most about academic achievement when looking for a school for their children, according to a study from researchers at the University of Southern California. reimaginED.

Opinions on schools: Only in a bizarro state like Florida would it be illegal to deny services to people who are not vaccinated, but perfectly fine to turn away people who are. Sure enough, that’s what a private school in Miami is doing. Orlando Sentinel. State Sen. Keith Perry claims to be codifying the “medical liberties of all Floridians,” but his bill banning mask and vaccine mandates in schools and businesses would only protect the rights of COVID-infected Floridians to threaten the lives of others. Gainesville Sun. A comprehensive hiring system that combines a multi-step vetting process with a state-of-the-art web portal and extensive data analysis to help school leaders select the best teaching applicants is showing impressive results. Lynn Olson and Thomas Toch, The 74.

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BY NextSteps staff