Public services have been at the foreground of local government agendas for much of the last two years. As it has become clear that our current economic downturn is no mere dip and that municipal budgets will likely remain deflated some time into the future, we obviously need to have a philosophical debate about the role of government in our society and the scope of services that are offered.
One thing that I doubt any citizen would consider on the table, however, is the matter of public safety, especially that of our most vulnerable citizens – our children. A recent spat of horrific incidents has brought the matter of how to best do so into the forefront of our collective attention, while exposing some chinks in the armor, so to speak.
Police recently apprehended Jared Scott Jenkins who has since confessed to three attacks, including the rape of a Bayshore High School student. Parental outrage was prompted by the discovery that the Bradenton Police Department and school officials failed to warn parents and students when the 15 year-old girl was raped on January 31 – just 11 days before another 12-year-old girl was sexually assaulted on her way home.
The later case, which was handled by the Manatee Sheriff's Office, was thought to be related not only to the recent rape, but to another attack on November 29 that MSO investigated as well. After what turned out to be a third attack, the school district used its "robo-call" system to send a message to parents at the school, and a press release was sent out to news outlets who alerted the general public.
At first, the response of both the BPD and the school district was somewhat flippant, as to why both had chosen not to warn parents or the public after the January 31 rape occurred. BPD Deputy Chief J.J. Lewis was quoted in the Sarasota Herald Tribune as saying “It's the detectives' prerogative as to when to release information. You have to balance preserving the integrity of the case with notification of the public.”
BPD pointed out afterward that they'd informed school officials, who in turn said that they did not communicate the January 31 incident to parents because it was not "school related" (on school grounds or while the student was walking home), and no one told them it might be related to the November incident. All of this was of very little concern to the parents of students who had been put in harm's way – especially the little girl and her family who suffered the attack that followed.
First, we must ask the criminal justice question of whether it is ever acceptable to potentially put citizens in danger in order to advance an investigation. While a broad-scale alert may have tipped off the attacker, a serial offender whose sexual-assault history dated back to his childhood, it could have also allowed parents to take precaution. Because Jenkins pleaded out and entered a diversion program after pushing a girl into a school bathroom and sexually assaulting her when he was in junior high, he was not in any sexual offender registry, exposing some other vulnerabilities in the system at large. Such a compulsive pattern suggests that he would have likely resurfaced, if not in this community, then elsewhere, which was obviously the concern of the detectives who were doggedly tracking him down.
Nonetheless, I am inclined to believe that it is never okay to put the safety of the citizenry at risk for the purpose of potentially keeping them safe in the future. Every parent at Bayshore deserved to know that such a crime had occurred in the area where their children walk to and from school, often alone.
Police had coordinated dense patrols in the area to try and apprehend the man responsible, but it still took another little girl getting attacked and the surveillance footage from an area resident's security system to finally track him down, and it should be noted that some excellent police work was performed in a massive, well-coordinated joint investigation between the two law enforcement bodies that eventually brought Jenkins to justice.
I doubt that the 12 year-old little girl who suffered what is sure to be a life-altering trauma takes much comfort in the notion that her nightmare may keep others safe. I am a parent, so I need not speculate on whether her mother or father accept such logic. An event like that will impact her life deeply and it is almost certain that her adult life, relationships and personal intimacy will be profoundly compromised as a result.
When the robo-call was finally placed after the third incident, parents responded – some keeping their children home, others altering their schedules to ensure their children didn't walk to or from school. The parents of the young girl that was attacked should have been afforded the same opportunity. BPD Chief Michael Radzilowski has since expressed deep regret for sitting on the information.
On February 18, just as the authorities involved were coming to terms with what happened and how it could have been better handled, a frightening incident occurred in the Summerfield neighborhood of Lakewood Ranch that once again had parents asking why they were not made aware through the school district of a potential threat. While walking home from a neighbor's house just a few doors away, an 8-year-old boy was approached by a man who he said exited a white panel van with a dollar in his hand and instructions to "take it."
A suspicious vehicle report had been phoned in by a neighbor just prior, who said she saw a van driving through the area, the drivers of which appeared to be attempting to talk to two girls. MSO responded, though the officer was not informed of the other child's report that a man had reportedly exited a vehicle or offered the child money. The boy's father told me that when he became aware, the neighbor had already alerted police for what he assumed was the same van.
From that initial call, MSO was able to obtain a partial plate on a van seen in the area and used it to track down a vehicle that was doing door to door solicitation nearby. It wasn't until their continuing investigation led them to the boy's statement that investigators could confirm that such an event had occurred.
By this time, the workers were in Jacksonville and cooperation with local law enforcement there helped MSO determine that the employees had in fact been in the area for that purpose and that none of them were registered sex offenders. Since an actual abduction attempt hadn't occurred, very little could be done at that point from a law enforcement standpoint. Legally, there is a fine line between suspicious or inappropriate behavior and that which is illegal. Discussing the case with Major Connie Shingledecker of the MSO, I was impressed with the level of thoroughness that been employed, especially considering the limited initial information.
"On the day of the 18th, there was only one call and that was for the suspicious vehicle," Shingledecker told me. "We didn't get a call on an attempted abduction or anything like that. The responding officer followed up with people in the neighborhood and there was a lot of competing information at first and no one had reported that incident first hand."
Shingledecker detailed the circumspect manner in which her investigators attended to the case and informed me that extra patrols were still in the area that day (by this point, a week later). From the amount of information that both Sheriff Steube and Major Shingledecker were able to immediately provide, it seemed clear that the MSO had been aggressive and thorough. It is unclear why the boy's parents did not immediately make a report of the man offering money, but once MSO had that information, they issued an alert.
I immediately forwarded the alert to the school district's communication department and that's where things grew frustrating. The response was that the incident had merely been some door to door sales people who had been trying to communicate with the children for purposes related to their business. A quick call to the Sheriff's office and I found out that had not been learned. Following up with several parents involved, it began to look like yet another incident of a communication breakdown – one with the potential for horrific consequences.
Regardless of the investigation, the fact remained that an 8-year-old McNeal Elementary student reported that he had been approached by a man who'd exited a van, urging him to take money. It was not an "attempted abduction" since he didn't tell him to get in the vehicle or try to grab him physically, but that is only pertinent from a legal standpoint. True, it was after school hours and off property, but it was on the direct route where students would walk home from the bus stop and the van(s) were reportedly in the area much of the day.
What's more, it cannot be corroborated that the van from the suspicious vehicle report was without a doubt the same one that approached the child since it was not made by the same person. It's a logical jump – but a jump no less. Also, there is still no acceptable reason that an adult would approach and solicit a child. Predators have day jobs too, and law enforcement experts routinely say that opportunity is the greatest driver of such crimes. Do we expect that a sexual predator would only approach children while off-duty? I would have liked to have seen the school district exercise the same interest I did to get a handle on exactly what happened and I would've liked to have seen a robo-call made to alert parents that such a report was made.
"We would like to inform you that a student in the area recently told police that he was approached by a man who'd exited a white panel van and offered him money. The incident reportedly took place in the Summerfield neighborhood of Lakewood Ranch after school hours. While no attempted abduction was reported, we would like to urge caution to students who walk home from their bus stops and encourage the reporting of such suspicious activity to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office."
Better safe than sorry, right?
Now, rewind to the Bayshore incident. Look at the peril that resulted when the district failed to err on the side of caution. What if a child would've been abducted the next week while walking home from the bus stop by someone in a white van offering them money? Would parents accept the discovery that there had been a report of such an incident earlier, but that it was after school and wasn't "technically" an attempted abduction?
I commend the MSO for releasing the information once they got a handle on it and for drilling all the way down on what was essentially a somewhat benign initial report. But the MSO is not the best resource for alerting parents in such cases. The school district can use the taxpayer-funded robo-call system to get accurate information to parents more quickly than any other means and they do so often, even for somewhat frivolous reasons, some of which seem to border on electioneering.
Manatee Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal told me that they rely on the Sheriff's department for such direction, but the MSO reports clearly show an obvious reason for concern and the district had such reports. When I confronted McGonegal with what I'd learned after interviewing the Sheriff, Shingledecker and several parents involved (all in the matter of about 2 hours by phone, so nothing the district wouldn't have had adequate resources to do themselves), he still wondered whether an alert was warranted.
"That brings up the question of whether that's something we would be using the Connect-Ed system for," said McGonegal. "We're going to be meeting with the MSO and discussing ways that we can communicate more directly for these types of issues," the superintendent also told me.
When I brought up the Bayshore incidents and the failure to adequately disseminate such information (a somewhat vague email communication was passed to principals after the second attack, but no robo-call until after the third) McGonegal's response was that, "I think we all learned something from what happened at Bayshore." Despite a lengthy conversation, I was unsure exactly what that might be.
In a follow-up email, McGonegal said that he'd spoken to Joe Stokes, the Director of Elementary Ed., who'd in turn spoken to McNeal Principal Linda Scott, who'd in turn spoken to the school resource officer and that the result was the same response I'd initially received – "it was a door to door salesman attempting to get kids to solicit for the vendor" – an inaccurate simplification that had been persistent, though I'd spent our entire conversation discrediting it.
At the heart of this matter is the role of both the school district and local law enforcement in the safety of our children. Hopefully the lessons learned through BPD's decision not to make a threat public will prevent that same mistake from reoccurring in the future. But there needs to be a clearly defined process for when and how the school district's unmatched ability to put vital safety information into parents' hands is employed, as well as who makes that call and is responsible for its failures.
I find the explanations that they didn't know that two sexual assaults were related, that events didn't take place on school grounds, or whether something was "suspicious" or "criminal," as reasons not to do what parents would expect – making the robo-call – grossly inadequate. Law enforcement officials have repeatedly said that it is not up to them how the school district disseminates such information, and school district officials have in turn said they rely on law enforcement for such direction. A well-defined protocol is clearly needed.
There is no responsibility of a municipal government that is of greater value to its citizens as the public safety of their young children. The nature of our society and educational system demands that we put our kids into environments where we must entrust their very lives to others. The past three months have taught us that too many opportunities to err in favor of their safety are being missed.
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