SE­CRECY

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Even then, she said, most dis­tricts would do their own in­ter­nal re­views to see what mis­takes were made.

Broward schools never did. It was five months af­ter the shoot­ing when the school dis­trict an­nounced it would launch a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion into school se­cu­rity and other is­sues that the con­sul­tant CEN was not con­sid­er­ing. By then, the state com­mis­sion was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the shoot­ing and asked the dis­trict to avoid an­other re­view, in or­der to not in­ter­fere with the com­mis­sion’s work.

Elected School Board mem­bers have largely fallen into line on se­crecy, claim­ing they have no in­for­ma­tion or cit­ing lit­i­ga­tion and stu­dent pri­vacy as rea­sons not to an­swer ques­tions.

Long­time board mem­ber Robin Bartle­man said she doesn’t feel com­fort­able dis­cussing whether mis­takes were made with Cruz’s school­ing, un­til in­ves­ti­ga­tions are com­plete.

“I don’t have all the info, and I don’t want to make state­ments that are er­ro­neous,” she said.

School Board mem­ber Nora Ru­pert, who chaired the board for most of 2018, also was cau­tious.

“As a mom, I would love to sit and talk with any­body who wants to about this,” she said, “but lit­i­ga­tion puts you in a very funky place.”

Ru­pert said she was un­aware that the dis­trict’s law firm, Hal­iczer, Pet­tis and Sch­wamm, hired the con­sul­tant CEN as part of its le­gal de­fense.

“I as a board mem­ber was not told any­thing about that, and I’m a lit­tle sur­prised,” she said.

A ‘white­wash’?

David Frankel, one of Cruz’s at­tor­neys, went fur­ther, call­ing the re­port a “white­wash” that un­der­played or omit­ted ev­i­dence of Cruz’s psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems in or­der to help the school dis­trict evade re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“To say it’s in­de­pen­dent is com­pletely mis­lead­ing,” Frankel said in court.

Christy Noe, pres­i­dent and CEO of CEN, de­fends the re­port as “not a white­wash at all.”

The re­port, in part, ex­plored why Cruz was trans­ferred to Stone­man Dou­glas from Cross Creek School in Pom­pano Beach, a school that gives emo­tion­ally and be­hav­iorally dis­abled stu­dents the extra sup­port they need. Cruz’s be­hav­ior de­te­ri­o­rated quickly at Stone­man Dou­glas and he was forced to with­draw, but the re­port con­cluded that the

“The way I look at it, we don’t have dead chil­dren if the school dis­trict had done what they needed to do.”

Dot­tie Proven­zano, a re­tired spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion co­or­di­na­tor for Broward schools

school dis­trict did noth­ing wrong by send­ing him there.

If peo­ple un­der­stood the laws re­lated to ed­u­cat­ing a spe­cial needs child, Noe said, they’d un­der­stand that Cruz wasn’t meant to stay in the shel­tered en­vi­ron­ment of a spe­cial school for­ever. Even with his his­tory of ag­gres­sion and threats to kill peo­ple, she said she stands by her re­port’s con­clu­sion that he had im­proved enough to be sent to a reg­u­lar school.

Cruz was just one of about 1,000 stu­dents in Broward pub­lic schools with emo­tional and be­hav­ioral dis­abil­i­ties, Noe said.

“If you were to re­view the full ed­u­ca­tional records of those stu­dents, you would find many, many in­stances in which they said or wrote dis­turb­ing or threat­en­ing state­ments,” Noe said in an email, adding that “un­for­tu­nately, how we see things in hind­sight is of­ten very dif­fer­ent than what we per­ceive in the mo­ment.”

Still, plenty of peo­ple knew that Cruz was bent on vi­o­lence, but their con­cerns ap­pear nowhere in the con­sul­tant’s re­port.

“Niko­las con­tin­ues to strug­gle with dis­play­ing ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iors,” a guid­ance coun­selor at Stone­man Dou­glas wrote. “The stu­dent was ob­served writ­ing ‘KILL’ on a pa­per.”

In Fe­bru­ary 2016, just weeks af­ter Cruz started full time at Stone­man Dou­glas, a neigh­bor re­ported to the sher­iff ’s of­fice how un­hinged he was. Cruz posted on­line that he planned to “shoot up a school,” the

neigh­bor said.

The state­ment does not ap­pear in the con­sul­tant’s re­port; it is not in­cluded in Cruz’s school files. In­stead, the re­port por­trayed the volatile Cruz as a suc­cess story at the time. He was “ex­pe­ri­enc­ing pos­i­tive aca­demic progress with only mi­nor be­hav­ioral chal­lenges,” the re­port said.

No help for Cruz

At Stone­man Dou­glas, Cruz dis­ap­peared on a gi­ant campus with 3,300 stu­dents and no struc­ture for emo­tion­ally trou­bled stu­dents like him.

Worse, the school dis­trict sent him there with­out a for­mal plan for man­ag­ing his be­hav­ior — a de­ci­sion the school dis­trict’s con­sul­tant found un­der­stand­able but oth­ers found out­ra­geous.

Send­ing him to Stone­man Dou­glas with­out a be­hav­ioral plan was a grave mis­take, said Dot­tie Proven­zano, a re­tired spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion co­or­di­na­tor for Broward schools.

Al­though the con­sul­tant did not crit­i­cize the dis­trict, the re­port did rec­om­mend that a be­hav­ioral in­ter­ven­tion plan “should be con­sid­ered” for stu­dents with emo­tional or be­hav­ioral prob­lems who move from spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion to a tra­di­tional school set­ting.

Some in the com­mu­nity won­der whether Cruz’s prob­lems at Stone­man Dou­glas led him to tar­get the school later.

The school dis­trict’s ac­tions were “just to­tal negli- gence — se­ri­ous, not mi­nor,” said Proven­zano, the for­mer spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion co­or­di­na­tor. “The way I look at it, we don’t have dead chil­dren if the school dis­trict had done what they needed to do.”

The dis­trict has tried to dis­pel that per­cep­tion.

Tracy Clark, the dis­trict’s pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer at the time, re­peat­edly distributed “talk­ing points,” or sug­gested com­ments, for ad­min­is­tra­tors and school board mem­bers to make p u b l i c l y, a c c o rd i n g t o emails ob­tained by the Sun Sen­tinel.

On Feb. 23, she sug­gested phrases for Ru­pert to use at a news con­fer­ence, in­clud­ing the state­ment: “Our thoughts and prayers re­main with the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School vic­tims, fam­i­lies, em­ploy­ees and com­mu­nity.”

On March 6, she is­sued this sug­ges­tion for School Board mem­bers: “Our abil­ity to move for­ward in the af­ter­math of this hor­rific at­tack de­pends on the steps we take now to un­der­stand the con­di­tions that may have led to this tragedy.”

Sim­i­larly, the dis­trict at­tempted to mit­i­gate any pub­lic out­cry about its con­sul­tant’s re­port. A news re­lease pro­claimed, “This re­port ver­i­fies that the dis­trict’s sys­tems are ap­pro­pri­ate and are in place.” Clark then sent out talk­ing points for board mem­bers, who were ad­vised to say, “I have not yet seen the re­port.” Or: “It seems clear that the re­view was thor­ough.” And: “We must never for­get that Niko­las Cruz is re­spon­si­ble for this tragedy.”

Ef­forts to con­trol in­for­ma­tion be­gan only days af­ter the shoot­ing. The school dis­trict in­structed its em­ploy­ees to di­rect all me­dia in­quiries to the pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fice, lim­it­ing in­ter­views with staff.

Prin­ci­pal Thomp­son still has not talked to re­porters nine months af­ter the shoot­ing.

In an email Feb. 22, Run­cie told Ru­pert, then the School Board chair­woman, that the dis­trict had hired a cri­sis man­age­ment firm and as­sem­bled a le­gal team that in­cluded ad­vis­ers ex­pe­ri­enced with other mass shoot­ings.

“Their ad­vice is that the fewer peo­ple we have talk­ing to the me­dia the bet­ter off we will be,” Run­cie wrote in an in­ter­nal email.

In to­tal, the school dis­trict paid cri­sis man­age­ment con­sul­tants more than $185,000 to re­spond to an on­slaught of me­dia re­quests and man­age its mes­sage to the pub­lic, ac­cord­ing to a dis­trict spokes­woman.

Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment In­ter­na­tional Inc., of Lit­tle Rock, Ark., founded by a for­mer coro­ner, took in more than half of the to­tal — $109,424 for 11 days of work i mmed i a t e l y a f t e r t h e shoot­ing. The com­pany had no writ­ten con­tract.

In ad­di­tion, Sara Brady, a Cen­tral Florida pub­lic re­la­tions pro­fes­sional, charged the dis­trict $300 an hour — for a to­tal of nearly $75,000 — to spread a pos­i­tive mes­sage in the com­mu­nity and gen­er­ate sup­port among par­ents, busi­nesses and stu­dents.

Her con­tract re­quired her to “en­sure facts are moved for­ward.” She as­sisted for about four months.

In Novem­ber, the dis­trict agreed to hire a new head spokes­woman, a mem­ber of the Broward Work­shop busi­ness as­so­ci­a­tion. Kathy Koch, who owns Am­bit ad­ver­tis­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions, will make $165,000 a year.

‘Stop talk­ing’

The de­ci­sion to hire out­siders to man­age com­mu­ni­ca­tions at tax­payer ex­pense might seem in­ap­pro­pri­ate, but it can be a re­spon­si­ble move, ex­perts say. Few busi­nesses or or­ga­ni­za­tions are pre­pared to han­dle the over­whelm­ing de­mands around the clock in an age when so­cial me­dia pro­vides in­stant global cov­er­age — and outrage.

The gen­eral pub­lic can­not fathom the num­ber of calls and emails that come in — by the minute — re­quest­ing in­ter­views, records, pho­to­graphs and videos, said Mark Mal­colm, pres­i­dent and founder of Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment In­ter­na­tional, the Arkansas firm that as­sisted the Broward schools.

“That’s why peo­ple reach out to us when they have an in­ci­dent like this and ask for help. … They don’t have the staff to meet those needs,” he said.

But pro­fes­sion­als some­times dis­agree about how to han­dle a cri­sis. Many preach open­ness and hon­esty to main­tain cred­i­bil­ity and re­as­sure the pub­lic. Brady’s mes­sage to clients is: “Stop Talk­ing,” which also is the ti­tle of a pod­cast she broad­casts mar­ket­ing her busi­ness.

A for­mer po­lice re­porter at the Or­lando Sen­tinel, Brady ad­vised the owner of the Pulse night­club, where 49 peo­ple were shot to death in 2016.

“Your goal is to sur­vive,” Brady told a na­tional con­fer­ence of school pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tives in July in Cal­i­for­nia, as she de­scribed the “unimag­in­able stress,” po­lit­i­cal pres­sures and press de­mands in a PR mael­strom like the Park­land shoot­ing.

Clark, the Broward school dis­trict’s pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer, was in the room dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion.

By “sur­vival,” Brady said, she meant that in the long term af­ter a cri­sis, peo­ple re­tain their jobs and the pub­lic trust in the or­ga­ni­za­tion is sal­vaged.

In a video­tape of the con­fer­ence work­shop, Brady tells pub­lic re­la­tions staff that they don’t have to an­swer all ques­tions and sug­gests that school staff force re­porters to sub­mit ques­tions by noon or “we’re not go­ing to be able to an­swer.” She urges of­fi­cials to weave in the school dis­trict’s key mes­sages and themes.

Brady ex­pressed dis­dain for the press, telling con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants that jour­nal­ists re­port­ing on the Stone­man Dou­glas tragedy were “ask­ing waste­ful ques­tions” and sim­ply seek­ing awards.

She ex­plained how the Broward school dis­trict re­fused re­porters ac­cess to grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies at Stone­man Dou­glas, months af­ter the shoot­ing, at the be­hest of fam­i­lies. She then jok­ingly mocked the locked-out re­porters as cry­ba­bies.

Brady de­clined to com­ment for this story. “I don’t dis­cuss my clients,” she said.

Asked whether she ad­vised the school dis­trict to “stop talk­ing,” she said, “No, I did not.”

Staff writer Scott Travis con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MIKE STOCKER/SUN SEN­TINEL

Broward County School Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie tes­ti­fies dur­ing the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School Pub­lic Safety Com­mis­sion meet­ing Nov. 15.

TAIMY AL­VAREZ/SUN SEN­TINEL

Tony Mon­talto, left, speaks dur­ing a press con­fer­ence while Fred Gut­ten­berg, April Schen­trup, and Max Schachter lis­ten. The par­ents of stu­dents killed in the Park­land mas­sacre called for changes in the school sys­tem.

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