Broward schools need new leader, con­fi­dence lost in Run­cie.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page -

Broward Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie is a good, thought­ful and wellmean­ing man who cares about kids, clos­ing the achieve­ment gap and en­sur­ing schools are safe for ev­ery­one.

But in the wake of the Feb. 14 mas­sacre at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, Run­cie is not the take-charge, no-ex­cuses leader our school dis­trict needs to bust down bu­reau­cratic bar­ri­ers, hold peo­ple ac­count­able and build pub­lic trust that our schools are safe.

Rather, the dis­trict’s lawyers ap­pear to be call­ing the shots. And their strat­egy re­minds us of an old Herblock car­toon where one gov­ern­ment bu­reau­crat says to the other: “Well, we cer­tainly botched this job. What’ll we stamp it — se­cret or top se­cret?”

The le­gal de­part­ment’s bat­ten-the­hatches ethos makes Run­cie’s talk of trans­parency, trans­parency, trans­parency echo like so many hol­low words.

Run­cie con­tin­ues to draw sup­port from the busi­ness com­mu­nity, the teacher’s union and Broward’s black elected of­fi­cials. In his seven years as su­per­in­ten­dent, he’s built a reser­voir of sup­port for hav­ing im­proved school grades, ad­dressed in­ef­fi­cien­cies and se­cured new money for con­struc­tion projects and pay raises.

Plus, he’s a nice guy who’s pas­sion­ate about ed­u­cat­ing stu­dents. He’s fa­mous for cre­at­ing a pro­gram meant to curb the school-to-prison pipe­line by giv­ing kids who com­mit mis­de­meanors a sec­ond chance. But re­port­ing by the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel of­fers rea­son to be­lieve his phi­los­o­phy cre­ated a cul­ture of le­niency in Broward schools, giv­ing kids end­less sec­ond chances, dis­cour­ag­ing teach­ers from re­port­ing trou­ble­mak­ers and keep­ing law en­force­ment agen­cies from hear­ing about vi­o­lent kids.

Run­cie’s defin­ing mo­ment

In this, his defin­ing mo­ment, few peo­ple are prais­ing Run­cie’s post-Park­land lead­er­ship. Rather, Park­land par­ents call him a liar. Bumper stick­ers call for his ouster. A state com­mis­sion de­cries his lack of ur­gency. State law­mak­ers pri­vately ques­tion his ef­fec­tive­ness. And the in­com­ing gover­nor would like to see him gone.

The pres­sure is tak­ing its toll. Run­cie looks beaten down. It’s hard to watch. But then you re­mem­ber that on his watch, multi-sys­tem fail­ures re­sulted in a deeply dis­turbed kid shoot­ing 34 peo­ple, 17 fa­tally.

The job of the school board is not to pro­tect the su­per­in­ten­dent or its overzeal­ous le­gal de­part­ment. It’s to pro­tect the kids. And right now, Broward School Board mem­bers are fail­ing their kids.

With­out ques­tion, the shooter, Niko­las Cruz, is re­spon­si­ble for his di­a­bol­i­cal ac­tions that day. But that doesn’t mean there is no ac­count­abil­ity for any­body else.

Be­fore Cruz was kicked out of Stone­man Dou­glas in Fe­bru­ary 2017, his ac­tions had prompted a “threat as­sess­ment.” We don’t know why, ex­actly. But records ob­tained by the Sun Sen­tinel — not from the school dis­trict, mind you — re­veal Cruz grew vi­o­lent at age 3. He is fas­ci­nated by blood, fire and the sound of gun­shots. He vandalized school prop­erty, drank gaso­line and mu­ti­lated small an­i­mals. He shouted curse words in class, brought bul­lets to school and said he “liked to see peo­ple in pain.” He threat­ened to kill a class­mate and shoot up the school. He told a teacher in mid­dle school: “I’m a bad kid. I want to kill.”

How in heaven’s name did the threat as­sess­ment fail to as­sess the threat this kid posed?

Put aside school grades, pep ral­lies and more money for salaries and con­struc­tion con­tracts. None of that mat­ters if stu­dents and staff don’t make it home at the end of the day.

A fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion

Ev­ery ma­jor catas­tro­phe ex­poses a fail­ure to imag­ine the im­pos­si­ble. Mil­i­tary lead­ers never thought Pearl Har­bor was vul­ner­a­ble. FBI of­fi­cials never thought fully fu­eled planes could be­come mis­siles. And Broward school lead­ers never thought Park­land would be­come the site of the na­tion’s worst high school shoot­ing.

The Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas Pub­lic Safety Com­mis­sion’s draft re­port shows a crit­i­cal fail­ure of fore­thought and fol­lowthrough at the school and the dis­trict. It re­veals a lack of train­ing for cam­pus mon­i­tors, a lack of train­ing on Code Red drills, a lack of at­ten­tion to hid­ing places, a lack of an audi­ble pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem, a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with law en­force­ment and a prin­ci­pal’s stun­ning lack of cu­rios­ity about the threats made against his school.

But if the dis­trict has no pol­icy that says gates must be locked or staffed when open, who’s fault is that? And if cam­pus mon­i­tors don’t know what to do when “Crazy Boy” comes on cam­pus with a ri­fle bag, who’s fault is that? And if Code Red sends stu­dents run­ning back to­ward a cat-bird sniper seek­ing to pick them off — who’s fault is that?

Per­haps schools aren’t pre­pared be­cause se­cu­rity isn’t the dis­trict’s fa­mous pri­or­ity.

Ten months later, what?

In Novem­ber, mem­bers of the state com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­gat­ing the shoot­ing ex­pressed enor­mous frus­tra­tion with Run­cie’s plod­ding pace in fix­ing se­cu­rity gaps. For ex­am­ple:

■ When asked whether all schools have cleared and marked “hard cor­ners” for safe hid­ing, Run­cie said: “We’re cur­rently work­ing with our se­cu­rity risk con­sul­tant to de­velop some pro­to­cols and pro­cesses around that and we in­tend to im­ple­ment guid­ance to schools this year.” Pinel­las County Sher­iff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the com­mis­sion, joined the cho­rus in push­ing back. “I’m go­ing to ask you to cre­ate a pol­icy, not a guid­ance, but a pol­icy that man­dates that the schools un­der your di­rec­tion have a hard cor­ner so that these kids can be safe.”

■ When asked whether law en­force­ment now has real-time ac­cess to school se­cu­rity cam­eras, Run­cie said he wanted to make it hap­pen, but the le­gal de­part­ment had an­other opin­ion. Pushed to show more ur­gency, Run­cie said: “We ex­pect to get this done within the week.” Three weeks later, he told us an agree­ment was in the works, but was not done.

■ When asked if he’d held any­one ac­count­able for fail­ing to re­port crimes to law en­force­ment or the state ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment, as re­quired, Run­cie said: “Not at — not at this time.”

■ When asked about a pol­icy to keep schools from lock­ing bath­room doors — a prac­tice that pre­vented kids from hid­ing at Stone­man Dou­glas, re­sult­ing in at least two deaths — Run­cie said: “We’ll get that changed.” When we checked three weeks later, it had been done.

■ When asked whether the dis­trict makes peo­ple sign some­thing to ac­knowl­edge they un­der­stand dis­trict poli­cies, Run­cie said: “We’ve talked about mak­ing the ac­tual sign-offs on a form a manda­tory piece of fu­ture train­ing. But in the past, there hasn’t been a con­sis­tent method to de­ter­mine that they’ve ac­tu­ally gone through that.”

■ When asked about school se­cu­rity as­sess­ments — the com­mis­sion said Stone­man Dou­glas’ post-Feb. 14 re­port was full of alarm­ing in­ac­cu­ra­cies — Run­cie said: “I think the in­stru­ment can be im­proved. I think the process can be im­proved. That is a work in progress.”

■ When asked if he had yet de­vel­oped a Code Red pol­icy, Run­cie said: “I couldn’t con­firm that there is a pol­icy. I just know what we ac­tu­ally pro­vide in terms of train­ing to schools and what the ex­pec­ta­tions are.”

A lack of ac­count­abil­ity

Run­cie later told us he didn’t un­der­stand the com­mis­sion’s in­tense fo­cus on a Code Red pol­icy. Be­cause of the Stone­man Dou­glas law passed in the spring, the dis­trict has held a fire drill and Code Red drill ev­ery month at ev­ery school, about a thou­sand dis­trict-wide this school year. (Un­like fire drills that evac­u­ate the build­ing, Code Red drills call for peo­ple to lock doors and shel­ter out of sight, ei­ther in a closet or a marked-off cor­ner in­vis­i­ble from the hall. The com­mis­sion is rec­om­mend­ing door win­dows be equipped with shades.)

Even be­fore the law’s height­ened safety re­quire­ments, Run­cie said stu­dents knew what to do. Why else did those on the sec­ond floor of the 1200 build­ing hun­ker down after hear­ing gun­shots be­low? Ev­ery­one sur­vived on the sec­ond floor.

“Folks are say­ing if a Code Red was called, no one would have come out of their rooms on the third floor. … If no­body knows what to do when a Code Red is called, if you know to stay in your room dur­ing a lock­down, do you not know what to do dur­ing a Code Red?”

But the com­mis­sion’s point is that a Code Red wasn’t called. Three cam­pus mon­i­tors had the oc­ca­sion to call it and didn’t. Six peo­ple died in the third floor hall­way be­cause the mas­sacre be­low had set off the fire alarm. Nei­ther was a Code Red called at neigh­bor­ing West Glades Mid­dle School be­fore Cruz ran by.

Sun Sen­tinel: So who’s re­spon­si­ble for that?

Run­cie: The ad­min­is­tra­tor at the school. Sun Sen­tinel: A name. The prin­ci­pal? Run­cie: Ev­ery­body is trained.

Sun Sen­tinel: Is it the prin­ci­pal? Run­cie: It starts with the prin­ci­pal and the other ad­min­is­tra­tors at the school.

Sun Sen­tinel: So who’s held ac­count­able for the con­fu­sion that hap­pened?

Run­cie: That’s what we’re try­ing to as­cer­tain and get to the de­tails of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion we’re do­ing. I’m not go­ing to pre­judge …

Sun Sen­tinel: But it gets back to why you don’t you know this stuff now. You’ve said you do know this stuff be­cause of the work done, in­clud­ing the in­ter­views of the Stone­man Dou­glas Com­mis­sion and the FDLE in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Run­cie: Yes, based on what they gave us. But what I don’t know yet is why. I need to have those in­di­vid­u­als be able to tell their story as to why.

Sun Sen­tinel: And have they not? Run­cie: That’s not what those in­ves­ti­ga­tions and in­ter­views are like.

Sun Sen­tinel: So have you talked to the school prin­ci­pal about why there was this con­fu­sion on Code Red?

Run­cie: Let me … I’m try­ing not to get ahead of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion process. All I will tell you is that, my un­der­stand­ing in Jan­uary of 2018, there was train­ing with folks at the school.

Not sit­ting on his hands

Run­cie sat with us for three hours the night be­fore the com­mis­sion re­leased its draft re­port. He made clear he hasn’t given up the fight and has not been sit­ting on his hands.

Im­me­di­ately after the mas­sacre, the dis­trict helped pro­vide men­tal health ser­vices in the com­mu­nity, sent more guid­ance coun­selors and trauma-fo­cused spe­cial­ists into the school, and quickly se­cured 36 por­ta­ble class­rooms. Stone­man Dou­glas now has new se­cu­rity cam­eras, door looks and ac­cess-card read­ers, as well as a new in­ter­com sys­tem, a sec­ond perime­ter fence and a se­cu­rity staff twice its old size.

Dis­trict-wide, Run­cie said ev­ery school is locked down dur­ing school hours. Gates are kept locked and su­per­vised when opened. Prin­ci­pals know to keep bath­rooms un­locked and have been told to prop­erly record and re­port dis­ci­pline prob­lems. And de­spite an in­dus­try short­age, cam­puses have the re­quired num­ber of armed of­fi­cers.

“Go to a school cam­pus, to any par­ent or any­one out there. I chal­lenge them to say they haven’t seen a marked dif­fer­ence in how schools are se­cured,” he said. “In fact I get emails .. ‘Hey, you might be go­ing too far.’ I would rather go too far on the se­cu­rity piece, and tweak it.”

Run­cie doesn’t get why peo­ple think he’s not been up­front about the events that took place be­fore, dur­ing and after the shoot­ing.

From his point of view, he’s given the state com­mis­sion ev­ery­thing it’s re­quested, and then some. He’s co­op­er­ated with the state at­tor­ney’s of­fice, care­ful not to say any­thing that could jeop­ar­dize its case against Cruz. And as he’s said re­peat­edly, he wants to be trans­par­ent, within the bounds of safety and stu­dent pri­vacy laws.

“It burns me when peo­ple say we aren’t trans­par­ent, we’re try­ing to hide stuff. Like what, this is the most open place. Ev­ery­thing we do,” he said.

Well, not ev­ery­thing.

A cul­ture of se­crecy

For months after the shoot­ing, the dis­trict re­peat­edly re­sponded to re­quests for in­for­ma­tion with a let­ter say­ing “any records per­tain­ing to Stone­man Dou­glas High will not be re­leased,” em­pha­siz­ing the word any. ”I would say that prob­a­bly was not a good com­mu­ni­ca­tions move by the or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Run­cie said. The dis­trict’s lawyers bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for the overly broad pol­icy, but Run­cie could have pushed back.

And weeks after the shoot­ing, Run­cie said he would an­swer ev­ery­one’s ques­tions when an in­ves­ti­ga­tion he’d or­dered was done in June. But when the time came, the dis­trict’s lawyers said they’d or­dered the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to de­fend against “a num­ber of civil pro­ceed­ings,” mak­ing the re­port a “work prod­uct,” not a pub­lic record. So much for Run­cie’s pub­lic ac­count­ing.

The lawyers quickly piv­oted to say they wanted the re­port re­leased, but the shooter’s fed­eral pri­vacy rights tied their hands. So after black­ing out two-thirds of the de­tails, they asked a judge to re­lease it.

From what lit­tle could be seen, it ap­peared the dis­trict had done ev­ery­thing right. A press re­lease said the dis­trict had pro­vided “sig­nif­i­cant and ap­pro­pri­ate ser­vices to Niko­las Cruz in com­pli­ance with fed­eral laws.” Turns out the press re­lease was so much spin.

The un­cen­sored re­port, ob­tained by the Sun Sen­tinel, re­vealed ad­min­is­tra­tors had given Cruz bad in­for­ma­tion, lead­ing him to de­cline all ser­vices to stay at Stone­man Dou­glas. And when he later asked for help, they did not fol­low through. So we’ve got to ask, who did those heavy-handed redac­tions re­ally pro­tect?

After the Sun Sen­tinel pub­lished the re­port, the dis­trict’s lawyers, on be­half of the school board, asked a judge to hold the re­porters in con­tempt of court. Taken by sur­prise, school board mem­bers said they wanted no such thing. The lawyers backed off, say­ing they never in­tended to re­quest a con­tempt or­der. Again, the facts say oth­er­wise.

Stop talk­ing

Run­cie says he’s not try­ing to hide be­hind pri­vacy laws and it’s un­fair to sug­gest the le­gal de­part­ment — which re­ports to the school board, not to him — is call­ing the shots.

So why did he tell us he’d or­dered the re­view, when the at­tor­neys said they’d or­dered the re­view for lit­i­ga­tion pur­poses? Run­cie dis­putes the at­tor­neys said that. Re­gard­less, “I’ve al­ways in­tended to make sure that in­for­ma­tion was avail­able.”

So why did he hire a cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant whose motto is “Stop Talk­ing?” At a sem­i­nar last sum­mer, Sara Brady said she ad­vised Run­cie not to re­spond to “the cra­zies” on so­cial me­dia — a state­ment Park­land fam­ily mem­bers took per­son­ally. A video also shows her be­rat­ing Sun Sen­tinel re­porter Scott Travis and his ques­tions.

“You don’t have to an­swer any of that, you just don’t,” she said, be­fore point­ing at two Broward schools com­mu­ni­ca­tion staffers in the au­di­ence. “And they don’t!” And they don’t.

In that un­fil­tered mo­ment, Brady made clear the dis­trict’s talk of trans­parency is just that — talk.

Run­cie in­sists Brady’s phi­los­o­phy doesn’t match his, she no longer works for him and look, he hasn’t stopped talk­ing. Re­gard­less, early on, he hired Ms. Stop Talk­ing to guide dis­trict com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Cruz’s pri­vacy rights

Run­cie in­sists his hands are tied by fed­eral pri­vacy laws. But those same laws didn’t stop the FBI from proac­tively telling peo­ple it had mis­han­dled a tip from a caller who feared Cruz might be­come a school shooter. It re­leased the tran­script, too.

And five days after the shoot­ing, the Florida De­part­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies sought per­mis­sion to re­lease the state’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Cruz fam­ily home. At­tor­ney John Jack­son said Cruz’s pri­vacy rights were “nearly none” in the face of 17 mur­der charges. Broward Cir­cuit Court Judge Charles Greene agreed “the pub­lic has the right to know” and that “by his own ac­tions,” Cruz had waived his right to pri­vacy.

By con­trast, the school dis­trict has gone above and be­yond to pro­tect Cruz’s pri­vacy rights, overly cau­tious in a case that doesn’t war­rant it.

Be­sides pri­vacy rights, Run­cie says he doesn’t want to hurt the state at­tor­ney’s case against Cruz. But the crim­i­nal case is not his job. Be­sides, Cruz has con­fessed. The only ques­tion is whether he’ll get the death penalty or life in prison. Is the death penalty more im­por­tant than pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion that might help the com­mu­nity have con­fi­dence in his lead­er­ship?

“I’ve al­ways thought the most im­por­tant thing is for the com­mu­nity to have con­fi­dence and trust in the in­sti­tu­tion. And part of that con­fi­dence and trust is, you have to know you’ve got a leader, they’re go­ing to abide by the law. And I have to do that,” he replied.

Run­cie in­sists li­a­bil­ity con­cerns aren’t driv­ing the dis­trict’s in­for­ma­tion lock­down, though it sure looks that way. Last we heard, the dis­trict had re­ceived more than 100 in­tent-to-sue no­tices from vic­tims and their fam­i­lies. (It’s tough to get that num­ber, too.) The lawyers are even fight­ing the par­ents of two dead chil­dren who seek doc­u­ments about stu­dent dis­ci­pline and school se­cu­rity.

Why the big fight if sov­er­eign im­mu­nity lim­its the dis­trict’s li­a­bil­ity to $300,000 for the en­tire mas­sacre, as the lawyers say? Run­cie says he plans to lobby the Florida Leg­is­la­ture to bet­ter com­pen­sate fam­i­lies for their suf­fer­ing, med­i­cal bills and in some cases, loss of spousal in­come.

But if money isn’t the is­sue, and other gov­ern­ment agen­cies have found a way past Cruz’s pri­vacy rights, what ex­plains the dis­trict’s brick wall?

Who is it re­ally pro­tect­ing? Con­sider more of Sara Brady’s un­var­nished truth to school com­mu­ni­ca­tors.

“Your goal is to sur­vive,” she said.

What we think

In the busi­ness world, ev­ery­body knows how this would play out. Some­times you just need a fresh face, some­one who can push past the blame, get be­yond the de­fen­sive­ness and with a check­list and hard dead­lines, es­tab­lish rules for the new nor­mal. A fresh slate also helps ev­ery­one heal a lit­tle bit bet­ter.

Sep­a­ra­tions are hard, es­pe­cially from a per­son­able per­son. But Broward school board mem­bers should be­gin talk­ing to Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie about sep­a­rat­ing.

Ed­i­to­ri­als are the opin­ion of the Sun Sen­tinel Ed­i­to­rial Board and writ­ten by one of its mem­bers or a de­signee. The Ed­i­to­rial Board con­sists of Ed­i­to­rial Page Ed­i­tor Rose­mary O’Hara, David Lyons and Ed­i­tor-in-Chief Julie An­der­son.

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