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Arrested Broward schools volunteer won’t face criminal charges, state attorney says

A Broward schools volunteer won’t face criminal charges after being arrested and accused of battery on a law enforcement officer, the Broward State Attorney’s Office has determined.

The decision to clear Debbie Espinoza came three days after the school district released a consultant’s report that concluded her arrest was avoidable and that school police failed to de-escalate tensions at a heated Oct. 17 School Board meeting.

Espinoza spent 27 hours in the Broward County Jail after being arrested by John Mastrianni, 63, a detective with the school district’s Special Investigative Unit. In addition to the felony battery charge, he accused her of disrupting a public meeting, a misdemeanor.

But the State Attorney’s Office found insufficient evidence to pursue either charge, according to a closeout memo filed Thursday by Staci DiRenzo, an assistant state attorney. The memo cited both a witness from the meeting, lawyer Alfreda Coward, and the district’s external review prepared by Timothy Enos, who retired last year as police chief for the Sarasota County School District.

One of the key findings from Enos’ report was that just prior to the arrest, Mastrianni appeared to move into Espinoza’s “personal space,” which caused her to bump into him.

“The video and eyewitness testimony make it clear that due to the Detective’s location, the arrestee could not have moved without making contact with the Detective,” the memo states. “Therefore, the State cannot prove that the arrestee intentionally struck the Detective.”

The incident happened at a School Board meeting where a new sex education curriculum was being approved. Espinoza spoke in favor of the curriculum and got into a verbal dispute with sex-ed opponent Deidre Ruth, who was not arrested.

School police detectives escorted both attendees out of the meeting, but only Espinoza was criminally accused of disrupting the meeting. Enos concluded that neither attendee should have been escorted out, because the two had stopped talking when warned by School Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff. By law, the board chair is the person designated to order a disruptive attendee to be evicted from a meeting.

“Because the arrestee ceased her interaction with the second party during the meeting, and because there was no request to remove her from the meeting, her behavior inside the meeting room will not support the charge of disruption of a School Board meeting,” DiRenzo wrote.

Broward school officials say they respect the State Attorney’s decision.

“The Board will continue to prioritize the safety of our stakeholders while ensuring they have a welcoming place to participate,” Alhadeff told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

District spokesman John Sullivan said the district has already made procedural changes to meetings, and police officers will receive additional training. Superintendent Peter Licata also will present the board with structural changes to the district’s safety division in early 2024, Sullivan said.

Neither Espinoza nor her lawyer could be reached for comment Thursday evening. A union representative for Mastrianni questioned the decision. Mastrianni felt Espinoza was being overly aggressive and intentionally made contact with him, said Rod Skirvin, president of the Broward Police Benevolent Association

“It does raise concern for the safety of officers and the School Board members themselves because being physical at a meeting is unacceptable behavior,” Skirvin said. “We need to make certain people have the opportunity to voice their opinions in a respectful, calm manner without becoming violent.”

Espinoza’s arrest raised concern among School Board members, who instructed Licata to conduct the outside review. She’s been a longtime volunteer and advocate and was named the district’s “Volunteer of the Year” in 2020.

“While I’m saddened by the terrible ordeal Ms. Espinoza has been through, I’m glad that common sense prevailed and her name has been rightfully cleared,” Board member Sarah Leonardi said.

Board member Debbi Hixon added, “Very glad to know that someone finally did the right thing.”

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