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