Wellington lawmaker faces backlash over Facebook post; apologizes

Sept 05, 2018
State Rep. Matt Willhite speaks at a town hall meeting at the Wellington Community Center on Aug. 29, 2018. The meeting was focused on gun violence after recent shootings in Wellington and Jacksonville. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

A local lawmaker who said a school police officer hit by a distracted driver while directing traffic was not doing his job when he was injured, is facing blowback for his comments.

In a Friday post on his official Facebook page, Wellington-based Democratic state Rep. Matt Willhite said Officer Bob Keating would have been better off patrolling Wellington Landings Middle School than directing traffic.

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Palm Beach County school police officer Bob Keating is back to work directing traffic at the entrance to Wellington Landings Middle School. Last December, he was hit by a distracted driver while he was directing traffic and was seriously injured. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Willhite linked from the post to a recent Palm Beach Post article about Keating, who was seriously injured last December when he was hit by a distracted parent while directing traffic after school at Wellington Landings. Keating sustained broken knee bones, three herniated discs and internal bleeding, and was not able to return to work until Aug. 1.

RELATED: School cop hit by mom in car line warns of distracted driving dangers

“It’s too bad this mom was a distracted driver not paying attention and on her cell phone,” Willhite wrote in the post. “This bad driving habit led to another tragedy, with another first responder getting hurt. At no time would I ever not be concerned about a human life.

“However, maybe if the cop was doing his job as an SRO (school resource officer) and not as a traffic director, he wouldn’t have gotten hit,” Willhite continued. “The Village of Wellington pays for crossing guards, and he works for the School District of Palm Beach County. His job is to protect the entire school campus and our children; not worry about getting cars out of the parking lot as he does every day. #doyourjobSRO”

State Rep. Matt Willhite deleted this Facebook post about Palm Beach County School District police officer Bob Keating after receiving dozens of negative comments. (Contributed) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Willhite deleted that post Friday night and replaced it with a shorter version, which he also deleted.

Willhite’s posts set off a flurry of negative comments, with one school district spokesperson using her personal account to accuse Willhite of “victim shaming.” That comment and others left on the posts were lost when Willhite deleted them.

School district chief of staff Amity Schuyler tweeted a screenshot of Willhite’s original Facebook post and a response: “#OfficerBob, we love you!” she wrote. “You do your job above and beyond for our kids every day! @SchoolPolicePBC is full of professionals just like you — from first to the last bell — they protect and serve our schools. They #KNOWtheJOB better than anyone … clearly.”

The school district and Keating declined to comment about Willhite’s posts.

Among those who reached out directly to Keating after Willhite’s post: Gov. Rick Scott. Keating confirmed to The Post that Scott called him. Scott also tweeted Saturday about Keating.

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“We are glad that Palm Beach County School District Officer Bob Keating returned to work in August,” Scott wrote. “He was injured in a traffic accident at Wellington Landings Middle School. We appreciate the service of all of our law enforcement & pray for Officer Keating’s continued recovery.”

Former schools superintendent Robert Avossa retweeted Scott’s tweet and added his own comment: “what a great thing for the governor to acknowledge — do you support the men and women in blue - or are you trying to divide and conquer- politics don’t belong in education.”

Chief David Perry, president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said Willhite’s comments saddened him. “It is disappointing and painful to hear a local leader make comments that diminish the sacrifice that our law enforcement officers like Officer Keating make on a daily basis to protect our communities,” Perry said in a statement.

The lawmaker issued a statement Wednesday apologizing, and saying he spoke with Keating after the posts.

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“As a first responder and parent, I appreciate and understand how some misunderstood the Facebook post regarding public safety at our schools,” Willhite wrote. “I have spoken to Officer Keating to offer my sincere apology for the misunderstanding and wished him a speedy recovery. At no point did I ever intend to criticize any member of law enforcement as I have always been a supporter and champion of those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our community.

“I have deleted the post to avoid any confusion, and have reiterated my support on ensuring each of our schools have the resources they need to keep our kids safe,” Willhite continued. “As a parent of two young boys, I know that every child must feel safe when they go to school. My intent in my message on Friday was always that — to ensure that the limited resources our schools have are deployed effectively and efficiently. I look forward to working with the PBA, FOP and Palm Beach County Police Chiefs in the upcoming session to find appropriate solutions and resources to protect our schools.”

Willhite, a Palm Beach County Fire Rescue captain, is running for re-election in November against Republican Laurel Bennett. He served two terms on the Village Council, from 2008 to 2016. In the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Willhite has frequently posted to social media regarding school safety. The shooting left 17 students and staff dead and 17 injured.

Wellington pays for school crossing guards through its contract with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Village Manager Paul Schofield said. PBSO has 73 crossing guards at village schools, but they are not able to direct traffic, Assistant Village Manager Jim Barnes said.

“They don’t have the ability to change traffic patterns,” Barnes said. Instead, the guards enforce existing rules.

Wellington Landings has been a trouble spot for traffic tie-ups for years, Schofield said. The village stationed extra deputies there at the beginning of this school year to help direct traffic. Schofield said he has discussed the school’s traffic issues with Willhite, both in Willhite’s capacity as lawmaker and a former member of Wellington’s Village Council.