HIDE, DENY, SPIN, THREATEN

How the school dis­trict tried to mask fail­ures that led to Park­land shoot­ing

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Brit­tany Wall­man, Me­gan O’Matz and Paula McMa­hon

FORT LAUD­ERDALE – Im­me­di­ately af­ter 17 peo­ple were mur­dered inside Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School, the school dis­trict launched a per­sis­tent ef­fort to keep peo­ple from find­ing out what went wrong.

For months, Broward schools de­layed or with­held records, re­fused to pub­licly as­sess the role of em­ploy­ees, spread mis­in­for­ma­tion and even sought to jail re­porters who pub­lished the truth.

New in­for­ma­tion gath­ered by the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel proves that the school dis­trict knew far more than it’s say­ing about a dis­turbed for­mer stu­dent ob­sessed with death and guns who mowed down staff and stu­dents with an as­sault ri­fle on Valen­tine’s Day.

Af­ter promis­ing an hon­est as­sess­ment of what led to the shoot­ing, the dis­trict in­stead hired a con­sul­tant whose pri­mary goal, ac­cord­ing to school records, was prepar­ing a le­gal de­fense. Then the dis­trict kept most of those find­ings from the pub­lic.

The dis­trict also spent un­told amounts on lawyers to fight the re­lease of records and nearly $200,000 to pay pub­lic re­la­tions con­sul­tants who ad­vised ad­min­is­tra­tors to clam up, the Sun Sen­tinel found.

School ad­min­is­tra­tors in­sist that they have been as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble; that fed­eral pri­vacy laws pre­vent them from re­veal­ing the school record of gun­man Niko­las Cruz; that dis­cussing se­cu­rity in de­tail would make schools more dan­ger­ous; and that an­swers ul­ti­mately will come when a state com­mis­sion re­leases its ini­tial find­ings about the shoot­ing around New Year’s.

Be­yond that, though, the cloak of se­crecy il­lus­trates the

steps a be­lea­guered pub­lic body will take to man­age and hide in­for­ma­tion in a cri­sis when rep­u­ta­tions, ca­reers and le­gal li­a­bil­ity are at stake.

It also high­lights the short­com­ings of fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion laws that pro­tect even ad­mit­ted killers like Cruz who are no longer stu­dents. Be­hind a shield of pri­vacy laws and se­cu­rity se­crets, schools can cover up er­rors and with­hold in­for­ma­tion the pub­lic needs in or­der to heal and to eval­u­ate the peo­ple en­trusted with their chil­dren’s lives.

Nine months af­ter the Park­land shoot­ing, few peo­ple have been held ac­count­able — or even iden­ti­fied — for mis­han­dling se­cu­rity and fail­ing to re­act to signs that the trou­bled Cruz could erupt. Only two lowlevel se­cu­rity mon­i­tors have been fired.

Three as­sis­tant prin­ci­pals and a se­cu­rity spe­cial­ist were fi­nally trans­ferred out of Stone­man Dou­glas this week as a re­sult of in­for­ma­tion re­vealed by the state com­mis­sion, but the dis­trict re­fused to say ex­actly what the em­ploy­ees did wrong.

“Ob­vi­ously it seems to me there were mul­ti­ple fail­ures in the sys­tem,” said long­time busi­ness­man John Daly Sr. of Coral Springs, who with a few oth­ers started the ac­tivist group Concerned Cit­i­zens of Broward County in re­sponse to what they con­sid­ered se­cu­rity lapses. “And ba­si­cally it looked, more or less, like a cover-up, be­cause they weren’t forth­com­ing about how they han­dled the sit­u­a­tion.”

Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie stresses that the school dis­trict has made no at­tempt to con­ceal in­for­ma­tion ex­cept when lawyers said it could not be re­leased.

“That can’t be char­ac­ter­ized — and should not be char­ac­ter­ized — as the dis­trict doesn’t want to pro­vide more in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “We work to be as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble. … We have noth­ing to hide.”

“There’s no con­ver­sa­tion any­where in this dis­trict about with­hold­ing any in­for­ma­tion that we can read­ily pro­vide. I haven’t had those con­ver­sa­tions. I haven’t heard about them.”

Fa­mil­iar prom­ises

Run­cie has pro­fessed open­ness from the be­gin­ning, but re­porters and fam­i­lies of dead chil­dren have been de­nied in­for­ma­tion time and again.

In May, three months af­ter the shoot­ing, Run­cie said: “Look, we want to be as trans­par­ent and as clear as pos­si­ble. … It’s the only way that we’re go­ing to get bet­ter as a school dis­trict, as a so­ci­ety, to make sure that we can put things in place so that th­ese types of tragedies don’t hap­pen again.”

In March, he said, “We can­not undo the heart­break this at­tack has caused in the com­mu­nity, but we can try to un­der­stand the con­di­tions that led to such acts in hopes of avoid­ing them in the fu­ture.”

That state­ment came as he an­nounced what he called an “in­de­pen­dent, com­pre­hen­sive as­sess­ment” that would be done with “trans­parency and a sense of ur­gency.”

The re­view fell short of what he de­scribed.

With­out tak­ing bids or in­ter­view­ing con­sul­tants, the dis­trict let its out­side law firm hire Col­lab­o­ra­tive Ed­u­ca­tional Net­work of Tal­la­has­see, a con­trac­tor that had worked for Broward schools be­fore and knew school board at­tor­ney Bar­bara Myrick pro­fes­sion­ally.

CEN’s con­tract, for $60,000, did not de­mand the thor­ough and trans­par­ent re­view that Run­cie promised. Rather, it di­rected the con­sul­tant to an­a­lyze Cruz’s school records, in­ter­view ed­u­ca­tors and keep the de­tails se­cret. The con­tract re­quired the con­sul­tant to “fur­ther as­sist the client in on­go­ing lit­i­ga­tion mat­ters.”

CEN spent sev­eral months an­a­lyz­ing one is­sue: whether Broward schools sat­is­fied the law in the ed­u­ca­tion of Niko­las Cruz, a one-time spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion stu­dent, or whether “ar­eas of con­cern” should be ad­dressed. The re­view made no at­tempt to as­sess Broward Cir­cuit Judge El­iz­a­beth Scherer speaks to Sun Sen­tinel at­tor­ney Dana McElroy re­gard­ing a school board mo­tion to find the Sun Sen­tinel in con­tempt for pub­lish­ing de­tails of a re­port on Niko­las Cruz’s ed­u­ca­tion record.

whether the dis­trict ad­e­quately pro­tected stu­dents or failed to act on Cruz’s of­ten-spo­ken plans for vi­o­lence. Though Run­cie said other agen­cies would be in­ter­viewed, none were.

The re­port, re­leased in Au­gust af­ter a court bat­tle, con­cluded that the dis­trict gen­er­ally treated Cruz prop­erly. Ex­actly how, the pub­lic could not tell.

With a judge’s ap­proval, the dis­trict ob­scured ref­er­ences to Cruz — nearly twothirds of the text — to pro­tect his pri­vacy un­der law. Only when the Sun Sen­tinel ob­tained and pub­lished an un­cen­sored copy did the truth come out: Cruz was deeply trou­bled; the dis­trict im­prop­erly with­drew sup­port he needed; he asked for ad­di­tional ser­vices; and the dis­trict bun­gled his re­quest, leav­ing him spin­ning with­out help.

What the re­port didn’t say

Star­tling as those de­tails were, they pale in light of new in­for­ma­tion ob­tained by the Sun Sen­tinel, none of it in­cluded in the con­sul­tant’s re­port or shared pub­licly by the school dis­trict.

The dis­trict was well aware that Cruz, for years, was un­sta­ble and pos­si­bly mur­der­ous:

■ “I’m a bad kid. I want to kill,” Cruz, now 20 years old, omi­nously told a teacher in mid­dle school.

■ “I strongly feel that Niko­las is a dan­ger to the stu­dents and fac­ulty at this school,” Cruz’s eighth­grade lan­guage arts teacher wrote in a be­hav­ioral eval­u­a­tion. “I do not feel that he un­der­stands the dif­fer­ence be­tween his vi­o­lent video games and re­al­ity.”

■ In mid­dle school, he “stated he felt ner­vous about one day go­ing to jail and won­dered what would hap­pen to him if he did some­thing bad.”

■ Cruz told one teacher in Oc­to­ber 2013 — 4½ years be­fore his Park­land ram­page — that “I would rather be on the street killing an­i­mals and set­ting fires.”

■ The same year, his eighth-grade class was dis­cussing the Civil War in Amer­ica. He “be­came fix­ated on the as­sas­si­na­tion of Abra­ham Lin­coln,” a teacher noted. “What did it Park­land school shooter Niko­las Cruz talks with his de­fense at­tor­ney, Diane Cud­dihy, in court for a sta­tus check hear­ing at the Broward County Court­house in Septem­ber.

Broward County Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent

Robert Run­cie sound like when Lin­coln was shot?” he asked. “Did it go pop, pop, pop re­ally fast? Was there blood ev­ery­where?”

■ At West­glades Mid­dle School, at the be­gin­ning of eighth grade, one girl’s mother called to have her trans­ferred out of Cruz’s class be­cause she was concerned for her child’s safety. The mother called Cruz a “men­ace to so­ci­ety,” ac­cord­ing to a psy­choso­cial as­sess­ment.

In short, the school dis­trict’s own records re­veal Niko­las Cruz to be a tor­tured teen li­able to ex­plode at any time. Yet the anal­y­sis the dis­trict com­mis­sioned to help the com­mu­nity “un­der­stand,” as Run­cie promised, makes no men­tion of those episodes.

Ryan Petty, whose

14-year-old daugh­ter, Alaina, was mur­dered at Stone­man Dou­glas, was an­gered that the re­port all but ab­solved the school dis­trict of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“I have ab­so­lutely no trust that the dis­trict has any in­ter­est in polic­ing it­self,” Petty said.

Fight­ing pub­lic ac­cess

The school dis­trict be­gan to lock down in­for­ma­tion right af­ter the shoot­ing, declar­ing that all Stone­man Dou­glas records were se­cret, even those the pub­lic had a le­gal right to see.

“At this time, any records per­tain­ing to Stone­man Dou­glas High will not be re­leased,” the dis­trict’s risk man­age­ment depart­ment said in an email to re­porters in Fe­bru­ary.

Even em­ploy­ees were

sub­ject to re­straints. Some re­ceived letters of rep­ri­mand — not for mis­han­dling Cruz, but for ac­cess­ing his pri­vate records af­ter the shoot­ing.

Of­fi­cials re­fused at times to re­spond to even sim­ple ques­tions from re­porters, telling them to wait for the con­sul­tant’s re­port:

■ In mid-March, spokes­woman Na­dine Drew de­clined to ex­plain why Cruz was banned from car­ry­ing a back­pack at school, in­for­ma­tion that had al­ready been re­vealed pub­licly.

■ Later that month, Run­cie cited the re­port in de­clin­ing to con­firm that Cruz par­tic­i­pated in the JROTC mil­i­tary pro­gram, a fact that was widely known.

■ In May, Run­cie said the dis­trict would “wait un­til we have the facts” in the re­port be­fore talk­ing in de­tail about Cruz’s in­volve­ment in PROM­ISE, a pro­gram that gives stu­dents a sec­ond chance af­ter dis­ci­plinary prob­lems.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the school dis­trict re­fused in Oc­to­ber to re­lease a pre­sen­ta­tion by in­ter­nal se­cu­rity ex­pert Al But­ler be­cause it sup­pos­edly con­tained se­cu­rity se­crets, but then the state com­mis­sion re­leased it the next month.

At one point, the dis­trict said it would cost $2,600 for re­porters to see copies of letters that teach­ers and staff sent to School Board mem­bers af­ter the shoot­ing. The dis­trict said it would charge $2,700 for Prin­ci­pal Ty Thomp­son’s emails re­lated to Cruz, the tragedy and se­cu­rity.

Jour­nal­ists ob­tained some of the letters months later af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing a lower price. Other emails were re­leased only af­ter the par­ents of dead stu­dents sued the school dis­trict, say­ing they had been un­able to ob­tain pub­lic records.

The Sun Sen­tinel has pe­ti­tioned to join that suit, one of sev­eral cases that have led the dis­trict into court over se­crecy.

Just two weeks af­ter the at­tack, news com­pa­nies sued the dis­trict to ob­tain sur­veil­lance video from out­side Stone­man Dou­glas so the pub­lic could eval­u­ate the re­sponse of po­lice of­fi­cers. The school dis­trict ar­gued that the footage would give away se­cu­rity se­crets. An ap­pel­late judge re­jected Ryan Petty, whose daugh­ter Alaina was killed in the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas shoot­ing, speaks at a news con­fer­ence af­ter fil­ing to run for the Broward County School Board in May. that ar­gu­ment, call­ing the video “some­thing that the par­ents of stu­dents should be able to eval­u­ate to par­tic­i­pate in fu­ture de­ci­sions con­cern­ing the safety of their chil­dren.”

The school dis­trict was back in court af­ter its con­sul­tant’s re­port was com­pleted. Af­ter first re­fus­ing to re­lease the re­port, school lawyers sud­denly sought a judge’s per­mis­sion to do so, but only with vast sec­tions blacked out to hide Cruz’s in­for­ma­tion.

Al­though the school dis­trict says the court or­dered the al­ter­ations, it was the dis­trict that sug­gested which por­tions to con­ceal af­ter ac­knowl­edg­ing that much of the in­for­ma­tion was pri­vate. Cruz’s lawyers ob­jected to the re­lease of any in­for­ma­tion at all.

When the Sun Sen­tinel pub­lished an un­cen­sored ver­sion, the school dis­trict swiftly asked a judge to hold two re­porters in con­tempt, which could re­sult in their jail­ing.

School of­fi­cials main­tain that they did not at­tempt to sanc­tion re­porters, only to in­form the court that the full re­port had been pub­lished. Yet their pe­ti­tion asked the judge to “ini­ti­ate con­tempt pro­ceed­ings … and im­pose proper sanc­tions as deemed ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Broward Cir­cuit Judge El­iz­a­beth Scherer has not ruled on the re­quest three months later.

Pre­cisely how much the school dis­trict has spent on le­gal bat­tles is un­clear. The dis­trict has failed to re­lease its le­gal bills de­spite re­quests from re­porters over the past month.

Back­ers in busi­ness

Aside from le­gal is­sues, the school sys­tem has con­sid­er­able rea­son to be concerned about its rep­u­ta­tion, finances and sta­bil­ity.

It is the sixth-largest school sys­tem in the coun­try, with more than 270,000 stu­dents and a bud­get of more than $4 bil­lion. Broward County’s largest pub­lic sec­tor em­ployer, its lead­er­ship wields tremen­dous power and in­flu­ence, and the com­mu­nity’s top busi­ness­peo­ple have been among Run­cie’s staunch­est sup­port­ers.

“The busi­ness com­mu­nity has con­fi­dence in Bob Run­cie 100 per­cent,” said Keith Koenig, pres­i­dent of City Fur­ni­ture and chair­man of the Broward Work­shop, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion made up of the county’s ma­jor corporations, in­clud­ing school dis­trict ven­dors and con­trac­tors.

Koenig cred­its Run­cie with rais­ing grad­u­a­tion rates, scal­ing down in­ef­fi­ciency, im­prov­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, win­ning an $800 mil­lion bond is­sue in 2014, and pass­ing a prop­erty tax in­crease this past Au­gust for teacher raises and school se­cu­rity — a cam­paign waged as ques­tions about Park­land went unan­swered.

Koenig said Run­cie “has at­tor­neys telling him what he can and can’t do legally,” which ex­plains, Koenig said, any hes­i­tance to re­lease in­for­ma­tion.

School dis­tricts na­tion­ally have taken sim­i­lar steps to pro­tect in­for­ma­tion dur­ing crises, ex­perts say.

In Madi­son, Ala., one ninth-grader fa­tally shot an­other in a hall­way at Dis­cov­ery Mid­dle School in Fe­bru­ary 2010. Al­though stu­dents were tex­ting the shooter’s name to one an­other, the school dis­trict could not con­firm it be­cause he was a mi­nor, said com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant Bar­bara Nash, who was hired to help with pub­lic re­la­tions.

“There are so many things that school of­fi­cials are not al­lowed to tell any­body, the par­ents, any­body,” Nash said. “I wanted to. wanted to. But we couldn’t. It would have been against the law to say so. It’s ridicu­lous.”

Mel­lissa Bra­ham, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of the Na­tional School Pub­lic Re­la­tions As­so­ci­a­tion, said: “Some­times you might think that it seems as if the dis­trict is try­ing to hide some­thing, when it might ac­tu­ally be that they’re try­ing to be thought­ful about the process or try­ing to pro­vide a rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion of the laws. And not get them­selves in ad­di­tional trou­ble.”

“We can­not undo the heart­break this at­tack has caused in the com­mu­nity, but we can try to un­der­stand the con­di­tions that led to such acts in hopes of avoid­ing them in the fu­ture.”

We

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

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 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. 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 neg­li­gence — 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 pub­licly, ac­cord­ing to 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 im­me­di­ately af­ter the 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.

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

MIKE STOCKER/SUN SEN­TINEL

Broward County Schools board mem­bers Abby Freed­man, Dr. Ros­alind Os­good and Heather Brinkworth, along with Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie, ad­dress the me­dia.

AMY BETH BEN­NETT/SUN SEN­TINEL

JOE CAVARETTA/SUN SEN­TINEL

AMY BETH BEN­NETT/SUN SEN­TINEL

MIKE STOCKER/SUN SEN­TINEL

TAIMY AL­VAREZ/SUN SEN­TINEL

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