Racial di­vide in Park­land emerges

Black com­mu­nity shows sup­port for Run­cie amid shoot­ing fall­out

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Me­gan O'Matz and Scott Travis

They grieved with Park­land and the county and the na­tion. They mourned the sense­less loss of 17 souls at school, sup­ported tougher se­cu­rity mea­sures and cheered on teens push­ing for gun re­form.

But now that the move­ment for ac­count­abil­ity af­ter the 2018 mas­sacre has fo­cused on oust­ing the highly ed­u­cated, hard-work­ing, Ja­maican-born schools chief, many in Broward County’s African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity are say­ing no. Stop. Enough.

Word spread in black churches, across neigh­bor­hoods and through so­cial me­dia: Come to a town hall meet­ing on se­cu­rity is­sues and make your sup­port known for Robert Run­cie. An email from a school dis­trict de­part­ment head went out urg­ing at­ten­dance and ac­cus­ing Run­cie’s de­trac­tors of us­ing “vile lan­guage” not seen “since de­seg­re­ga­tion or­ders were en­forced.”

Hun­dreds of peo­ple of color re­sponded, pack­ing Mon­day’s meet­ing in Coral Springs and pub­licly ob­ject­ing to cam­paigns to “de-

mo­nize him.” At least two his­tor­i­cally black churches de­liv­ered buses full of peo­ple to the meet­ing, held in the au­di­to­rium at J.P. Tar­avella High School. An over­flow crowd filled the cafe­te­ria.

“We still have con­fi­dence in you, Mr. Run­cie,” Mar­sha El­li­son, Broward County NAACP pres­i­dent, said to wild ap­plause.

But some of Run­cie’s crit­ics think the dis­trict or­ches­trated the out­pour­ing of sup­port for the su­per­in­ten­dent, turn­ing a town hall meet­ing on se­cu­rity is­sues into a sort of rally for Run­cie.

His­tor­i­cally, Broward County has had deep di­vi­sions in the school dis­trict over race. They in­volve con­cerns of in­fe­rior schools in black neigh­bor­hoods, the forced bus­ing of stu­dents, in­com­pe­tent teach­ers as­signed to black schools, un­fair dis­ci­pline mea­sures against black and His­panic stu­dents, and the shut­ting out of mi­nor­ity busi­nesses and builders from a fair share of dis­trict con­tracts.

Many in the black com­mu­nity be­lieve they have an ally in Run­cie as some­one who un­der­stands their con­cerns. And they point to a grow­ing re­sent­ment in Broward County over what they see as the seem­ingly “zero tol­er­ance” for black of­fice­hold­ers en­meshed in crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions ver­sus their white coun­ter­parts.

Some of the back­lash stems from the re­cent ouster of Brenda Snipes, the African-Amer­i­can su­per­vi­sor of elec­tions, sus­pended from of­fice by then-Gov. Rick Scott af­ter a slow and flawed vote count in Novem­ber. While bal­lot con­tro­ver­sies arose in Hills­bor­ough and Bay Coun­ties, Scott did not re­move those white male su­per­vi­sors.

“The African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity feels like we’re get­ting to just a break­ing point, re­ally, over the dis­re­spect that is shown to peo­ple who are black com­pared to folks who are not,” said at­tor­ney Bur­nadette Nor­risWeeks, who served as Snipes’ gen­eral coun­sel. “Peo­ple are so ea­ger to be­lieve any­thing neg­a­tive when it comes to a per­son of color … with­out all the facts and in­for­ma­tion.”

In the case of the af­flu­ent com­mu­nity of Park­land — where 84 per­cent of res­i­dents are white — par­ents of the dead chil­dren have used their power and in­flu­ence to draw con­sid­er­able, sus­tained at­ten­tion to their views and de­mands. Their voices have seem­ingly drowned out the sen­ti­ments of oth­ers with a dif­fer­ent mind­set.

“No­body is say­ing that the Park­land par­ents are racist,” said state Sen. Perry E. Thurston Jr., who rep­re­sents a ma­jor­ity black dis­trict in Broward. Rather, he said, many mem­bers of the black com­mu­nity went to the meet­ing to show that a large cross­sec­tion of the county sup­ports Run­cie.

Ef­forts to put the blame on Run­cie for the shoot­ing are mis­placed, the sen­a­tor said.

“The blame should be placed on the in­di­vid­ual who did the shoot­ing, who,

quite frankly, was not from the black com­mu­nity.”

‘In­flam­ma­tory’ Park­land par­ents

The School Board will take up a mo­tion on March 5 to fire Run­cie.

It was placed on the agenda by Lori Al­had­eff, who was elected to the board in Novem­ber. Her daugh­ter, Alyssa, 14, was one of the stu­dents killed at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High.

Al­had­eff cited Run­cie’s “many fail­ures of lead­er­ship,” in­clud­ing his han­dling of the tragedy, as well as the slow progress spend­ing $800 mil­lion from a bond passed in 2014 for uses that in­clude se­cu­rity.

She told the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel: “We need to pro­tect all of our chil­dren and all of our schools,” but “I have no con­fi­dence that Mr. Run­cie can ex­e­cute train­ing, poli­cies and pro­ce­dures for safety and se­cu­rity through­out the dis­trict.”

Run­cie was named su­per­in­ten­dent in 2011. Ex­cept for an in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent, the dis­trict had never had a black man per­ma­nently at the helm.

About 39 per­cent of the dis­trict’s stu­dents are black.

At Mon­day’s meet­ing, one speaker warned that pub­lic de­mands to fire Run­cie, “a bril­liant Har­vard-ed­u­cated leader,” were “in­cred­i­bly vit­ri­olic.”

“The at­tacks on him are per­sonal, mean-spir­ited and down­right hate­ful,” said the woman, who did not give her name.

Run­cie stud­ied eco­nom­ics at Har­vard, has an MBA from North­west­ern Univer­sity and was hired for his busi­ness savvy and his record of im­prov­ing trans­porta­tion and tech­nol­ogy in the Chicago schools.

He promised to boost stu­dent achieve­ment, re­store pub­lic trust af­ter a cor­rup­tion scan­dal and im­prove the dis­trict’s busi­ness prac­tices.

The busi­ness com­mu­nity strongly sup­ports him but faces a po­ten­tial back­lash if they are too out­spo­ken.

City Fur­ni­ture was the sub­ject of a re­cent boy­cott launched by some Park­land par­ents be­cause its CEO, Keith Koenig, has been forth­right in his praise for Run­cie. Koenig chairs the Broward Work­shop, a pol­icy group of the area’s top cor­po­rate lead­ers.

Fort Laud­erdale lawyer Chris Smith, a for­mer state sen­a­tor, said many in the black com­mu­nity have taken of­fense to the ag­gres­sive

ap­proach they’ve seen from some Run­cie crit­ics in the Park­land area.

“The tone com­ing from some of the Park­land par­ents has got­ten the AfricanAmer­i­can com­mu­nity up­set,” Smith said.

Af­ter the shoot­ing hap­pened, he said, “you saw many peo­ple, black and white, sup­port­ing and wear­ing MSD shirts. I drove my fam­ily all the way to Park­land to be at the park” where memo­ri­als were held.

But he said now: “Their rhetoric has be­come in­flam­ma­tory and very, very par­ti­san. Now it seems like they’re out for blood.”

As an ex­am­ple, Smith re­ferred to a com­ment from one Park­land par­ent that “Democrats are liars.”

Broward is a Demo­cratic strong­hold in Florida. Half of all reg­is­tered vot­ers in the county are Democrats, and an­other 28 per­cent have no party af­fil­i­a­tion.

Among the county’s black pop­u­la­tion, about 80 per­cent are reg­is­tered as Democrats. Most oth­ers chose no party af­fil­i­a­tion.

Aside from the de­sire to see Run­cie re­moved, the most vo­cal Park­land par­ents have ad­vo­cated for the dis­man­tling of Run­cie’s sig­na­ture “Prom­ise” pro­gram, which seeks to re­v­erse a school-to-prison pipe­line for Broward stu­dents, with the co­op­er­a­tion of po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors. About 68 per­cent of the chil­dren in the Prom­ise pro­gram are black, ac­cord­ing to 2016 dis­trict statis­tics.

The pro­gram has come to be seen by many in Park­land as fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of le­niency that let the Stone­man Dou­glas shooter es­cape the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem de­spite threat­en­ing stu­dents, bring­ing bul­lets to school and dam­ag­ing school prop­erty.

But the Prom­ise pro­gram — which is sup­posed to be for only mi­nor, non­vi­o­lent of­fenses — has great sup­port in the black com­mu­nity, where par­ents see it as a step to­ward keep­ing their sons and daugh­ters out of an in­her­ently bi­ased jus­tice sys­tem.

Run­cie also gets high marks for re­duc­ing the num­ber of F-rated schools in Broward County down to just one this year.

Said Smith: “This is a big­ger county than just the north­west quad­rant. The en­tire county isn’t messed up. A lot of peo­ple are happy with the school dis­trict and the safety of kids. Af­ter the un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent last year, there are things that can be done and fixed, but we get this pic­ture that this is the worst school dis­trict in the coun­try.”

A con­tro­ver­sial in­vi­ta­tion

Mon­day’s town hall meet­ing came a year af­ter the mas­sacre on Feb. 14, 2018. There is still grief, anger and raw emo­tions.

A cou­ple of weeks ago, an email went out from the di­rec­tor of the dis­trict’s di­ver­sity de­part­ment to his staff, black com­mu­nity lead­ers, teach­ers and oth­ers urg­ing peo­ple to at­tend Mon­day’s town hall meet­ing to “make a state­ment in sup­port of our su­per­in­ten­dent.”

The email, ob­tained by the Sun Sen­tinel, said that Run­cie had met pri­vately sev­eral times with par­ents and stake­hold­ers from Stone­man Dou­glas and the en­coun­ters had been “loud, ag­gres­sive and hos­tile.”

“The types of words used and vile lan­guage have been like noth­ing that has been seen since de­seg­re­ga­tion or­ders were en­forced,” wrote David L. Watkins, di­rec­tor of the school sys­tem’s De­part­ment of Eq­uity and Di­ver­sity.

Watkins did not re­turn a call and email for com­ment. Dis­trict spokes­woman Cathy Bren­nan told the

Sun Sen­tinel that he “was re­fer­ring to di­vi­sive­ness in the com­mu­nity.” She did not elab­o­rate.

Park­land par­ent Ryan Petty, whose daugh­ter died at Stone­man Dou­glas, said he was shocked by Watkins’ email. “It was a lie,” he said, call­ing on Watkins to prove that any such vile lan­guage oc­curred.

“He’s made a claim, now he needs to pro­vide ev­i­dence.”

Though the email be­gan by stat­ing that “Mr. Run­cie is invit­ing you to come …,” the su­per­in­ten­dent said in an in­ter­view that he had not seen it and was un­aware of it.

“This is a big county, right?,” Run­cie said. “So the fact that there are peo­ple there from other av­enues — it was a coun­ty­wide town hall. I mean, I think it showed some kind of bal­ance.”

The send­ing of the email may have crossed a line, how­ever.

Re­tired prin­ci­pal Re­becca Dahl, who is ac­tive on sev­eral school dis­trict com­mit­tees, said she be­lieves Watkins vi­o­lated a pol­icy on us­ing email for a per­sonal agenda or to make in­flam­ma­tory remarks.

“The minute I saw ‘de­seg­re­ga­tion,’ I thought, ‘Who are you kid­ding there?’ It’s

in­flam­ma­tory,” she said. “I thought we were sup­posed to be talk­ing about school safety, not a seg­re­ga­tion is­sue.”

Dis­trict spokes­woman Bren­nan said there was no wrong­do­ing and noth­ing im­proper about an em­ployee invit­ing mem­bers of the pub­lic to a pub­lic meet­ing. “He is per­mit­ted to ex­press his opin­ion about why a per­son might want to come to the town hall meet­ing,” she said.

State Rep. Shevrin Jones be­lieves Run­cie has be­come a “punch­ing bag,” sub­ject to ver­bal at­tacks and abuse, in­clud­ing peo­ple “threat­en­ing the life of him and his fam­ily.”

Ros­alind Os­good, the school board’s only black mem­ber, said “there has been con­stant of­fen­sive racial remarks posted, tweeted and writ­ten” about the turnout at the town hall. She cited one teen’s on­line post call­ing it “de­spi­ca­ble” that peo­ple were bused in while “le­git­i­mately con­cerned par­ents had no chance to speak or even find a seat.”

Park­land par­ents are aghast at the sug­ges­tion that their de­mands for ac­count­abil­ity over the deaths of their chil­dren are con­strued as racially mo­ti­vated.

An­drew Pol­lack, who lost his daugther Meadow in the shoot­ing, tweeted at the su­per­in­ten­dent, “Shame on you for fur­ther vic­tim­iz­ing the Park­land par­ents by de­pict­ing us as racist to de­flect from your in­ep­ti­tude as Su­per­in­ten­dent.”

At Mon­day’s town hall meet­ing, a vis­i­bly up­set Fred Gut­ten­berg said the bul­let that shot his 14-year-old daugh­ter, Jaime, “did not know the color she was or her so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus.”

“I’m frus­trated as hell at what has hap­pened in this room tonight to make this about color and so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus,” he said. “This is about se­cu­rity.”

Al­though race was rarely men­tioned di­rectly dur­ing Mon­day’s meet­ing, Gut­ten­berg said the over­tones were there.

He pointed out that Sen. Thurston told the crowd: “As much as some peo­ple want to get rid of Bob Run­cie, we feel just as strongly it ain’t gonna hap­pen.”

Gut­ten­berg told the Sun Sen­tinel: “The feel­ing was we should all shut up. It be­came very clear some­thing else was go­ing on, and that en­tire night, there was an un­der­cur­rent of race in the com­ments.”

“Fix it”

Many who suf­fered a loss in Park­land feel Run­cie has not moved quickly enough to “fix it,” as Pol­lack says in a reg­u­lar hash­tag on so­cial me­dia.

Se­cu­rity watch­men who failed to stop the gun­man were not quickly fired. Key ad­min­is­tra­tors at the school are still em­ployed. The dis­trict only re­cently adopted a Code Red pol­icy. Not ev­ery school has a sin­gle point of en­try. Not ev­ery school has doors that teach­ers can lock with­out step­ping out­side and risk­ing get­ting shot.

Tony Mon­talto, who buried his daugh­ter, Gina, ac­knowl­edged at the town hall meet­ing that some changes have been made “but every­one should rec­og­nize there has not been a sense of ur­gency for mak­ing Broward County schools safe.” He said more of­ten than not Run­cie and the school board “let ob­sta­cles get in the way of their ac­tion. Good lead­ers find a way to get things done de­spite the chal­lenges they face,” he said.

Run­cie told the crowd that he is com­mit­ted to mak­ing schools safer through “lay­ers of se­cu­rity,” in­clud­ing ex­te­rior fenc­ing, sin­gle points of en­try, po­lice and armed guardians at each school, ad­di­tional cam­eras and im­proved sur­veil­lance mea­sures.

But he said he knew that “no mat­ter what we are do­ing I keep hear­ing it’s not enough.”

Run­cie told Gut­ten­berg: “I can’t bring your daugh­ter back. I can’t do it.”

The head of the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas com­mis­sion, which in­ves­ti­gated the tragedy, said the school dis­trict has lacked ur­gency in fix­ing prob­lems, but he called Run­cie and his staff "pro­fes­sional, trans­par­ent and co­op­er­a­tive.”

Yet Run­cie’s sup­port­ers say even that was not enough to sat­isfy the Park­land vic­tims.

The school dis­trict im­me­di­ately was sub­jected to a grand jury in­ves­ti­ga­tion, called for by Florida’s new gov­er­nor, Ron DeSan­tis, who said if he had the power to oust Run­cie he would.

In a re­cent col­umn, Bobby R. Henry Sr., pub­lisher of the black-owned West­side Gazette, wrote that no other su­per­in­ten­dent or school board mem­ber in the coun­try has been asked to re­sign or step down af­ter a school shoot­ing.

Why now? “Could it be the ac­cused ac­com­plices are Black and those that are bring­ing charges are rich well-to-do white peo­ple or be­cause the lo­cale of the grounds of the killing floor is Park­land and the oth­ers rep­re­sent the in­ter­city where Black lives are lost ev­ery day to gun vi­o­lence and there seems to be no songs for them.”

At the town hall meet­ing, Run­cie said the Park­land tragedy has “ab­so­lutely changed and im­pacted me ev­ery sin­gle day. “

Each morn­ing, he said, he thinks about the Park­land fam­i­lies and “what we can do as a school sys­tem to move for­ward and help this com­mu­nity heal.”

The shoot­ing hap­pened un­der his watch, he said.

“I need to fix it.”

CARLINE JEAN/SUN SEN­TINEL

Broward County School Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie speaks dur­ing school board town hall meet­ing.

Smith

Jones

Pol­lack

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