Long silent and com­pla­cent, mem­bers fi­nally an­swer ques­tions

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Me­gan O’Matz and Scott Travis

As the pub­lic de­manded an­swers about the slay­ings at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School, the peo­ple elected to gov­ern the dis­trict had lit­tle to say.

The nine mem­bers of the Broward County School Board sur­ren­dered con­trol to their su­per­in­ten­dent and lawyer, even as those peo­ple with­held in­for­ma­tion from the pub­lic, threat­ened to jail re­porters and flip-flopped on safety mea­sures.

Now board mem­bers could pay a price for their com­pla­cency.

Crit­ics of the School Board have an ally in Florida’s new gov­er­nor, Ron DeSan­tis, who has been re­mov­ing elected of­fi­cials from of­fice across the state and has warned he may oust some Broward School Board mem­bers.

A ma­jor­ity of the board is stand­ing by Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie, even as out­raged par­ents call for his fir-

ing. He’s ac­cused of mov­ing too slowly to fix se­cu­rity vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and fire ad­min­is­tra­tors at the school, which — within min­utes — be­came a death cham­ber.

The tur­moil is start­ing to en­velop and frac­ture the board. They have sparred pub­licly over closed­door meet­ings and the su­per­in­ten­dent’s fate.

Pressed by the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel, the nine re­cently agreed to an­swer ques­tions about the con­tro­ver­sies, the pace of re­forms and Run­cie’s per­for­mance — though some did so only re­luc­tantly.

Here is what they said.

Lori Al­had­eff

Sev­eral days af­ter her 43rd birth­day, Al­had­eff lost her 14-year-old daugh­ter, Alyssa, in the Stone­man Dou­glas shoot­ing. Alyssa was the old­est of three chil­dren and Al­had­eff ’s only girl. The stay-at-home mom chan­neled her grief into ac­tivism, work­ing for gun con­trol and school safety. She won a seat on the School Board in Novem­ber.

She said she’s found that even when the dis­trict has poli­cies in place, “there seems to be a lack of doc­u­mented pro­ce­dures — and train­ing is in­ef­fec­tive.” The Stone­man Dou­glas Com­mis­sion, for ex­am­ple, found that a key ad­min­is­tra­tor at Stone­man Dou­glas did not know how to con­duct threat as­sess­ments and did not prop­erly carry out one on the shooter in 2016.

“I be­lieve in­com­pe­tence and lack of ac­count­abil­ity on a num­ber of fronts ab­so­lutely con­trib­uted to this tragedy,” Al­had­eff said. Asked about the seem­ingly slow pace of re­forms, Al­had­eff was blunt in her crit­i­cism. “I think the real prob­lem is a lack of abil­ity. Peo­ple seem to un­der­stand the ur­gency, but don’t seem to know how to ef­fec­tively and ef­fi­ciently im­ple­ment rec­om­men­da­tions.” At the school level, part of the prob­lem seems to be giv­ing too much re­spon­si­bil­ity or au­thor­ity to prin­ci­pals, who are not safety ex­perts.”

Al­had­eff does not be­lieve her col­leagues on the board have held Run­cie an­swer­able for his ac­tions and de­ci­sions. “I will not be giv­ing him a glow­ing rec­om­men­da­tion,” she said.

Robin Bartle­man

Bartle­man is one of the su­per­in­ten­dent’s per­sis­tent de­trac­tors. “I be­lieve Mr. Run­cie has not moved in a timely man­ner, nor has he done an ef­fec­tive job com­mu­ni­cat­ing what the dis­trict has ad­dressed and com­pleted re­gard­ing the safety of our stu­dents,” she said.

“I look for­ward to hav­ing a dis­cus­sion about Mr. Run­cie’s em­ploy­ment with the board and com­mu­nity. The con­ver­sa­tion must be broader than MSD.”

She’s im­pressed, how­ever, with the Ge­or­gia se­cu­rity con­sul­tant the dis­trict hired for $1 mil­lion, Safe Havens In­ter­na­tional, which has vis­ited ev­ery school and made rec­om­men­da­tions. But she ad­mits that took time.

Re­con­fig­ur­ing schools so there is only one en­try point — to bet­ter con­trol who comes onto cam­pus — has taken years. The projects have been put on a faster track, but Bartle­man said “poor ex­e­cu­tion” of an $800 mil­lion bond pro­gram un­der Run­cie and his for­mer fa­cil­i­ties chief meant “it has taken far too long to be­gin and com­plete these projects.”

Se­cu­rity has al­ways been a top pri­or­ity, Bartle­man said, but poli­cies are ef­fec­tive only if em­ploy­ees fol­low them. That was not the case at Stone­man Dou­glas, and Bartle­man said Safe Havens is work­ing to im­prove train­ing.

Three as­sis­tant prin­ci­pals were re­as­signed while their ac­tions are un­der re­view. The prin­ci­pal is still at Stone­man Dou­glas.

Heather Brinkworth

Asked why the dis­trict didn’t im­me­di­ately in­ves­ti­gate Stone­man Dou­glas staff, Brinkworth said of­fi­cials didn’t have ac­cess to sur­veil­lance video, which po­lice quickly con­fis­cated. The dis­trict also was con­sumed with other pri­or­i­ties, such as ar­rang­ing for men­tal health sup­port for teach­ers and stu­dents.

The Stone­man Dou­glas Com­mis­sion re­leased a re­port in Jan­uary that out­lined sys­temic fail­ures. For ex­am­ple, no one called a “Code Red” lock­ing down the school un­til over three min­utes into the shoot­ing. But Brinkworth is not sure that con­clu­sion is cor­rect.

She said some of the school ra­dios ap­peared not to work and led to dif­fi­cul­ties when two peo­ple tried to press the talk but­ton at the same time.

“Was there a Code Red called? Some peo­ple say a Code Red was called. The com­mis­sion said there was no Code Red called. How do we know?” she asked. “We only know for cer­tain those things that were cap­tured on tape or on body cam­era.”

Brinkworth — the board’s cur­rent chair — is un­com­fort­able with calls to fire peo­ple, say­ing teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors didn’t en­ter the pro­fes­sion be­liev­ing they would have to deal with mass mur­der.

“I don’t think at any junc­ture, any­where in the world, you can be ab­so­lutely pre­pared for an in­ci­dent like this,” she said.

Run­cie has made some mis­steps, par­tic­u­larly in how he com­mu­ni­cates, she said, not­ing he promised to in­stall metal de­tec­tors at Stone­man Dou­glas but then abruptly changed course af­ter a se­cu­rity con­sul­tant rec­om­mended against it.

“Per­haps in his at­tempt to make a sit­u­a­tion bet­ter in some in­stances, he speaks be­fore con­sult­ing with the board or se­cu­rity ex­perts,” she said.

She be­lieves the school board has achieved many ac­com­plish­ments across Broward, but the “tragedy of Feb. 14 has con­sumed all of the oxy­gen in the room.”

Pa­tri­cia Good

Good was a Mi­ami-Dade schools ad­min­is­tra­tor for two decades. She un­der­stands the pub­lic con­cern that se­cu­rity fixes have not oc­curred fast enough. “I have an ur­gency to get things done, too,” she said. Like other board mem­bers, she said she wanted to be thought­ful about what is changed and how.

Good ac­knowl­edges that the dis­trict could have com­mu­ni­cated bet­ter with par­ents and the com­mu­nity. “I think still to­day some of the mis­in­for­ma­tion out there has cre­ated some neg­a­tive feel­ings as to the swift­ness of ac­tion. If we had done a bet­ter job of com­mu­ni­cat­ing some of the chal­lenges we were fac­ing ... the pub­lic would bet­ter un­der­stand.”

Good rec­og­nizes the enor­mous ad­di­tional load put on Run­cie and said she views it as her duty — as a team mem­ber — to be sup­port­ive.

“I do be­lieve things could have been done dif­fer­ently. I’m hop­ing as a board with Mr. Run­cie’s as­sis­tance, we will make sure we can ad­dress all the con­cerns that have been high­lighted.”

She stressed that schools have had safety pro­ce­dures and drills in place for years.

Stone­man Dou­glas had fire drills but no lock­down drills, how­ever, and staff did not know who could call a Code Red and un­der what cir­cum­stances, the state com­mis­sion found.

Said Good: “There may be con­fu­sions from one cam­pus to the next. I can’t speak to specifics.”

So why did it go so wrong in Park­land? Good pre­ferred not to fully an­swer. “I’ll just say it’s been a very dif­fi­cult time for the com­mu­nity. … In hind­sight, there are things that could have been done dif­fer­ently.”

Donna Korn

“As a par­ent of three chil­dren in the school dis­trict, I don’t think any­thing ever feels like it’s mov­ing fast enough,” Korn said. “Cer­tainly se­cu­rity is our great­est pri­or­ity.”

She said the dis­trict has been ad­dress­ing var­i­ous as­pects of the tragedy, in­clud­ing “build­ing in­fras­truc­ture,” pro­ce­dural mat­ters, men­tal health sup­port, and iden­ti­fy­ing trou­bled stu­dents.

“It has been a chal­lenge to try to get things to move as quickly as I would like and I know the board would like,” she said. “At the same time, we are mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment on all of those fronts.”

She said the dis­trict re­lied on Safe Havens’ rec­om­men­da­tions. The dis­trict in­creased the num­ber of ra­dio pur­chases as well as in­ter­com sys­tems and bought dig­i­tal sur­veil­lance cam­eras for all schools.

The dis­trict also plans to es­tab­lish a cen­tral, round-the-clock emer­gency com­mand cen­ter, which will even­tu­ally mon­i­tor all cam­eras. It’s ex­pected to be ready for the 2019-20 school year.

Korn said she sup­ports Run­cie and the board re­lies on his in­put to make de­ci­sions. “We have made great in­roads, but we have so much more to do. I be­lieve he is up for that chal­lenge.”

Lau­rie Rich Levin­son

A busi­ness­woman with an eco­nomics de­gree, Levin­son rat­tled off how the dis­trict has spent more than $30 mil­lion from its re­serves on safety mea­sures since the shoot­ing: more than $6 mil­lion to re­pair and re­place sur­veil­lance cam­eras, $4.5 mil­lion for ad­di­tional por­ta­ble ra­dios and de­vices to im­prove ra­dio sig­nals, $17 mil­lion for an in­ter­com sys­tem, $3.2 mil­lion for a new of­fice of school safety.

Levin­son de­clined to dis­cuss why such com­pre­hen­sive eval­u­a­tions and up­grades weren’t done years be­fore. “I’m go­ing to talk to you about the pace at which things have been done since the tragedy and what has been done.”

Men­tal health providers im­me­di­ately came to­gether, she said, to make sure there was fund­ing for care in the af­ter­math of the hor­ror.

Asked if there are enough school coun­selors and psy­chol­o­gists in the dis­trict now, Levin­son said: “Ab­so­lutely not. That is an area where there needs to be more fund­ing from the state.” More money came from Tal­la­has­see af­ter the shoot­ing, she said, but it is still in­ad­e­quate.

Levin­son sup­ports Run­cie and sug­gested that any at­tempt by the gov­er­nor to re­move her would be a mis­take.

“I was just re-elected five months ago,” she said. “The peo­ple spoke. We live in a democ­racy, and that’s what elec­tions are for. I was a sup­porter of the su­per­in­ten­dent then, as were the other two col­leagues of mine who were on the bal­lot,” she said, re­fer­ring to Korn and Mur­ray. (Nora Ru­pert, who has been rougher on Run­cie, also won, as did Lori Al­had­eff.)

Ann Mur­ray

Mur­ray isn’t con­vinced a lack of poli­cies and pro­ce­dures con­trib­uted to the Park­land tragedy. She said even though the dis­trict didn’t have board-ap­proved poli­cies on many se­cu­rity is­sues, ad­min­is­tra­tors are dili­gent about in­struct­ing schools how to han­dle those mat­ters.

“We’ve had pro­ce­dures in place since my chil­dren were in schools in 1970s and 1980s. They had fire drills and pro­ce­dures about safety, bul­ly­ing, drugs, and we’ve had train­ing.”

Were Stone­man Dou­glas of­fi­cials fol­low­ing pro­ce­dures on Feb. 14? “I don’t know what they were do­ing,” said Mur­ray, a for­mer school bus driver and trans­porta­tion su­per­vi­sor. “All I know is what’s ex­pected of any ad­min­is­tra­tor. We have pro­ce­dures, and we have drills that ev­ery­one is cog­nizant of.”

Mur­ray ex­plained why the board has kept quiet pub­licly and al­lowed Run­cie to do most of the talk­ing.

“I think ev­ery­one is be­ing cau­tious be­cause emo­tions are at an all-time high, crit­i­cism is at an all­time high,” she said. “Like any good or­ga­ni­za­tion, you put the in­for­ma­tion to­gether and al­low one per­son to carry the mes­sage. So far the su­per­in­ten­dent has done a good job. We’re not al­ways the most knowl­edge­able peo­ple.

“I know we’ve been crit­i­cized for trans­parency, but we are be­ing sued by many dif­fer­ent peo­ple. We want to make sure we get our facts straight,” she said.

Mur­ray still sup­ports Ru­nice and says board mem­bers give him frank as­sess­ments in closed-door meet­ings “Ev­ery board mem­ber has an hour a month with Mr. Run­cie to dis­cuss is­sues, and that’s where those con­ver­sa­tions are had,” Mur­ray said. “I don’t think there’s any­thing pro­duc­tive in crit­i­ciz­ing and de­mean­ing any­one, I don’t care if it’s the su­per­in­ten­dent or staff, in the pub­lic eye.”

Ros­alind Os­good

Seem­ingly easy fixes are not al­ways so easy, Os­good said.

In re­cent weeks, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­leased a ma­jor school safety re­port. So did the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas fact-find­ing com­mis­sion set up by the state. And the school board has rec­om­men­da­tions from Safe Havens In­ter­na­tional. “That’s three dif­fer­ent re­ports. As a pol­i­cy­maker we have to bal­ance those re­ports. They don’t al­ways agree,” she said.

Just mark­ing “hard cor­ners” in class­rooms, out of a shooter’s line of sight, proved to be com­pli­cated. “If I go in and say here is a safe cor­ner, now am I con­fus­ing that child that might think the closet will be safer?”

Or if a shooter at­tacks from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, “the safe space is now un­safe,” she said.

Os­good, who has a doc­tor­ate in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion from Nova South­east­ern Univer­sity, is in­cred­u­lous that Stone­man Dou­glas se­cu­rity and ad­min­is­tra­tors did not know how or when to call a Code Red, lock­ing down the school. Os­good’s dis­trict in­cludes many poor, mi­nor­ity neigh­bor­hoods where lock­downs are called fre­quently — usu­ally be­cause of dan­ger­ous peo­ple loose in the com­mu­nity.

Some other ar­eas of the county, she said, per­ceive them­selves to be safer and so do not call Code Reds, she said, al­lud­ing to Park­land.

Ul­ti­mately, Os­good be­lieves a lot of what hap­pened at Stone­man Dou­glas was be­cause peo­ple there did not do their jobs prop­erly.

“As a school board mem­ber I can’t re­ally get into peo­ple’s per­son­nel is­sues be­cause of the law. But if I wasn’t a School Board mem­ber I could talk more in depth about that.”

She is a strong de­fender of Run­cie, see­ing an im­pres­sive turn­around of poor-per­form­ing schools.

Grad­u­a­tion rates are up, “op­er­a­tional ef­fi­cien­cies” have saved the dis­trict money, and low-level staff, such as bus driv­ers, have got­ten raises. The pre­vi­ous two su­per­in­ten­dents did not pri­or­i­tize her dis­trict, she said.

“I have to look at the whole pic­ture when it comes to mak­ing a de­ci­sion about the su­per­in­ten­dent,” she said.

Nora Ru­pert

Ru­pert was chair­woman at the time of the tragedy, but was no­tice­ably less vo­cal in her crit­i­cisms of the dis­trict dur­ing that time pe­riod. She said that was based on ad­vice from dis­trict lawyers and fel­low board mem­bers. “I was told not to speak up. You could open your­self up to law­suits. Be care­ful what you say. The su­per­in­ten­dent will do the talk­ing.”

Ru­pert has be­come more out­spo­ken in her crit­i­cism this fall af­ter she won re-elec­tion and her term ended as chair­woman. “The press is an ex­tremely im­por­tant part of our so­ci­ety, and if we bar­ri­cade our­selves from un­com­fort­able ques­tions and just put our heads in the sand, my good­ness, that doesn’t help any­one or any­thing,” she said.

She agrees the dis­trict has shown a lack of ur­gency in its re­forms. Part of that is the bu­reau­cracy in­volved in a large gov­ern­ment agency, she said. “Things are not mov­ing as fast as I would have liked to have seen.“There’s no rea­son, she said, that changes that cost noth­ing were not im­ple­mented, such as mark­ing off safer cor­ners in class­rooms.

Ru­pert and Al­had­eff are the only two board mem­bers who have pub­licly called for Run­cie to be fired.

“Af­ter the tremen­dous amounts of mis­takes or mis­steps he’s made, if he were a teacher he would have been fired,” she said. “But not if you’re a chief.”


Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie with school board mem­bers.

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