Arrest of longtime Broward Schools volunteer sparks review, calls for conflict training

Hours after Broward Faculties Superintendent Peter Licata praised the contributions of the varsity district’s volunteers, his police division arrested a former “Volunteer of the Yr” in the midst of a raucous assembly and charged her with a felony.

The Tuesday arrest of Debbie Espinoza on a cost of battery on a legislation enforcement officer has shocked many within the district, together with some College Board members. They questioned whether or not the cost was warranted, and why the district’s police pressure, generally known as the Particular Investigative Unit, was unable to de-escalate tensions earlier than a longtime volunteer with no historical past of points was handcuffed.

Licata has directed Jaime Alberti, chief of security and safety for the district, to overview the matter, district spokesman John Sullivan advised the South Florida Solar Sentinel.

The arrest adopted a heated trade Tuesday between Espinoza and conservative activist Deidre Ruth over a brand new intercourse schooling coverage the College Board was approving. Along with the battery cost, a third-degree felony, she was charged with disrupting a College Board assembly, a misdemeanor. Ruth was not charged.

Some College Board members say they don’t imagine any bodily contact Espinoza had with Police Detective John Mastrianni was intentional, they usually wish to see the fees dropped. However since there’s already been an arrest, that call might be as much as the State Legal professional’s Workplace, officers mentioned.

“Prosecutors will overview all the information, circumstances, and proof (when that’s offered to our workplace) earlier than making any formal charging choice,” Paula McMahon, a spokeswoman for the State Legal professional’s Workplace, mentioned in an electronic mail to the Solar Sentinel.

Espinoza, 61, is a Cooper Metropolis mum or dad of three grown kids and a longtime volunteer. She’s been a fixture each at her kids’s former colleges and on the District Advisory Council, an influential group that makes suggestions to the College Board. She chaired the council throughout 2020-21 and was named the district’s Volunteer of the Yr in 2020.

“I’ve solely ever identified Debbie Espinoza to be a very unbelievable volunteer and advocate for college kids, and I’ve actual issues in regards to the message this sends to our volunteers,” Board member Sarah Leonardi mentioned.

Board member Nora Rupert mentioned she “was aghast” when she heard in regards to the arrest.

“There was lots of drama occurring that day, however to be clear: It might not have been my name,” she mentioned.

Chuck Harper, a Parkland mum or dad who chairs the District Advisory Council, mentioned, “To place her in handcuffs, that complete dynamic is somewhat extreme. I do know Debbie may be boisterous. That’s just about the place it ends.”

The incident occurred on the similar College Board assembly the place Licata had earlier thanked volunteers who serve on district advisory teams.

“Time is one thing we by no means get again on this life, they usually spend lots of time working to verify we now have checks and balances, and I recognize the whole lot they do,” Licata mentioned on the assembly.

However earlier than the assembly was over, Espinoza was sitting in jail, the place she stayed for greater than 24 hours earlier than being launched on her personal recognizance Wednesday evening.

The officer concerned, Mastrianni, 63, is a veteran police officer who has labored as a detective for the district’s Particular Investigations Unit since 2016. He has led among the district’s college security coaching, showing in a 2021 energetic assailant coaching video.

A possible trigger affidavit Mastrianni ready misspells Espinoza’s identify and consists of particulars of the assembly that battle with movies shared, resembling an assertion that Espinoza refused to depart the boardroom when requested.

As for what Espinoza did that will have constituted a battery, that’s unclear, and totally different district officers have provided various accounts. Mastrianni’s affidavit mentioned she “lunged her physique into this officer, creating physique contact and inflicting this officer to backpedal.”

Alberti, chief of security and safety, advised the Solar Sentinel on Tuesday afternoon Espinoza pushed the officer; and a police detective advised a Solar Sentinel reporter Tuesday evening that she elbowed him.

College cops don’t put on physique cameras, and whereas one assembly attendee acquired a video of her being handcuffed, there’s no public video exhibiting the alleged battery. The college district declined a Solar Sentinel request for surveillance video, saying it’s exempt beneath Florida legislation, except ordered by a subpoena.

Espinoza declined to remark when reached by the Solar Sentinel, saying she was searching for authorized counsel. Her shut buddy, Carolyn Krohn, who was on the assembly however didn’t witness the incident, mentioned Espinoza advised her she misplaced her stability after reaching for her sandals in a tote bag.

“She mentioned, ‘I fell backwards. I didn’t even know he was there,’” Krohn mentioned.

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Krohn and Espinoza have been each a part of a District Advisory Council subcommittee that helped rewrite the district’s intercourse schooling coverage to turn out to be compliant with new state legal guidelines. They attended the assembly to talk in favor of the brand new curriculum.

Throughout her feedback, Espinoza refuted claims by some earlier audio system that the intercourse ed curriculum “teaches anal intercourse” to college students. The secondary curriculum mentions anal intercourse, in addition to oral and vaginal intercourse, however principally within the context of find out how to stop sexually transmitted ailments, together with HIV.

Audio and video of the assembly reveal that Ruth, a mum or dad and conservative activist who was ready in line to talk, made a number of remarks difficult Espinoza’s public feedback, main Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff to warn, “Quiet within the viewers.”

After Espinoza completed, Ruth and Espinoza had an inaudible trade. After a safety officer instructed them to cease speaking, Espinoza replied, “She’s accosting me and telling me I wasn’t on the subcommittee” that drafted the intercourse ed coverage.

Alhadeff recessed the assembly because of the interruptions, and after an officer advised Ruth she must depart, she made a sequence of loud outbursts. Espinoza was additionally requested to depart and appeared to conform. The video reveals one police officer following Ruth out and Mastrianni shadowing Espinoza, who may be heard telling him in an indignant voice, “Don’t push me! Don’t push me!”

“Whereas making an attempt to escort the arrestee out of the constructing, she turned agitated and resistant,” Mastrianni wrote.

Board member Torey Alston advised the Solar Sentinel the entire incident troubled him.

“Whereas I strongly assist advocacy and public feedback, I stay involved in regards to the decorum throughout our conferences,” he mentioned. “Ardour is sweet, however inappropriate feedback and bodily touching others is out of bounds and may’t be the norm. We should promote our views however in a civil method.”

Board member Debbi Hixon mentioned lots of conferences have turn out to be heated, however none have led to district police arresting anybody. She mentioned the incident reveals a necessity for higher coaching of faculty district cops.

“I don’t perceive how we acquired to that degree,” Hixon mentioned. “We have to be sure that we’re de-escalating conflicts and never feeding into them. I don’t agree she ought to have been arrested. The truth that she spent the day in jail breaks my coronary heart.”

College Board conferences in Broward have turn out to be more and more heated lately, first over masks and COVID-19 protections and extra just lately over intercourse ed, guide challenges and resolutions in assist of Muslim and LGBTQ college students.

Ruth has been ordered to depart at the least three earlier College Board conferences because of outbursts over such matters. However whereas Espinoza was being arrested, Alhadeff allowed Ruth, who hadn’t but made her public feedback, to come back again in and converse to the board, angering Espinoza’s associates and supporters.

“I used to be unaware of the arrest once I decided Ms. Ruth might return if she calmed down,” Alhadeff advised the Solar Sentinel. “Workers acknowledged that she was calm. Ms. Espinoza had already spoken on the merchandise.”

Alhadeff and different College Board members say the district must take steps to keep away from these form of points sooner or later.

“I’ve requested the Superintendent to overview our security and public participation protocols for College Board conferences and workshops to make sure we’re offering a secure, safe and welcoming setting for all,” Ahadeff mentioned.

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