Broward schools need new leader, confidence lost in Runcie.
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.
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.