As the public demanded answers about the slayings at , the people elected to govern the district had little to say.
The nine members of the Broward County School Board surrendered control to their superintendent and lawyer, even as those people withheld information from the public, threatened to jail reporters and flip-flopped on safety measures.
Now board members could pay a price for their complacency.
Critics of the School Board have an ally in Florida’s new governor, , who has been removing elected officials from office across the state and has warned he may oust some Broward School Board members.
A majority of the board is standing by Superintendent Robert Runcie, even as outraged parents call for his firing. He’s accused of moving too slowly to fix security vulnerabilities and fire administrators at the school, which — within minutes — became a death chamber.
The turmoil is starting to envelop and fracture the board. They have sparred publicly over closed-door meetings and the superintendent’s fate.
Pressed by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the nine recently agreed to answer questions about the controversies, the pace of reforms and Runcie’s performance — though some did so only reluctantly.
Here is what they said:
Several days after her 43rd birthday, Alhadeff lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. Alyssa was the oldest of three children and Alhadeff’s only girl. The stay-at-home mom channeled her grief into activism, working for gun control and school safety. She won a seat on the School Board in November.
She said she’s found that even when the district has policies in place, “there seems to be a lack of documented procedures — and training is ineffective.” The Stoneman Douglas Commission, for example, found that a key administrator at Stoneman Douglas did not know how to conduct threat assessments and did not properly carry out one on the shooter in 2016.
“I believe incompetence and lack of accountability on a number of fronts absolutely contributed to this tragedy,” Alhadeff said. Asked about the seemingly slow pace of reforms, Alhadeff was blunt in her criticism. “I think the real problem is a lack of ability. People seem to understand the urgency, but don’t seem to know how to effectively and efficiently implement recommendations.” At the school level, part of the problem seems to be giving too much responsibility or authority to principals, who are not safety experts.”
Alhadeff does not believe her colleagues on the board have held Runcie answerable for his actions and decisions. “I will not be giving him a glowing recommendation,” she said.
Bartleman is one of the superintendent’s persistent detractors. “I believe Mr. Runcie has not moved in a timely manner, nor has he done an effective job communicating what the district has addressed and completed regarding the safety of our students,” she said.
“I look forward to having a discussion about Mr. Runcie’s employment with the board and community. The conversation must be broader than MSD.”
She’s impressed, however, with the Georgia security consultant the district hired for $1 million, Safe Havens International, which has visited every school and made recommendations. But she admits that took time.
Reconfiguring schools so there is only one entry point — to better control who comes onto campus — has taken years. The projects have been put on a faster track, but Bartleman said “poor execution” of under Runcie and his former facilities chief meant “it has taken far too long to begin and complete these projects.”
Security has always been a top priority, Bartleman said, but policies are effective only if employees follow them. That was not the case at Stoneman Douglas, and Bartleman said Safe Havens is working to improve training.
Three assistant principals were reassigned while their actions are under review. The principal is still at Stoneman Douglas.
Asked why the district didn’t immediately investigate Stoneman Douglas staff, Heather Brinkworth said officials didn’t have access to surveillance video, which police quickly confiscated. The district also was consumed with other priorities, such as arranging for mental health support for teachers and students.
The Stoneman Douglas Commission released a report in January that outlined systemic failures. For example, no one called a “Code Red” locking down the school until over three minutes into the shooting. But Brinkworth is not sure that conclusion is correct.
She said some of the school radios appeared not to work and led to difficulties when two people tried to press the talk button at the same time.
“Was there a Code Red called? Some people say a Code Red was called. The commission said there was no Code Red called. How do we know?” she asked. “We only know for certain those things that were captured on tape or on body camera.”
Brinkworth — the board’s current chair — is uncomfortable with calls to fire people, saying teachers and administrators didn’t enter the profession believing they would have to deal with mass murder.
“I don’t think at any juncture, anywhere in the world, you can be absolutely prepared for an incident like this,” she said.
Runcie has made some missteps, particularly in how he communicates, she said, noting he promised to install metal detectors at Stoneman Douglas but then abruptly changed course after a security consultant recommended against it.
“Perhaps in his attempt to make a situation better in some instances, he speaks before consulting with the board or security experts,” she said.
She believes the school board has achieved many accomplishments across Broward, but the “tragedy of Feb. 14 has consumed all of the oxygen in the room.”
Good was a Miami-Dade schools administrator for two decades. She understands the public concern that security fixes have not occurred fast enough. “I have an urgency to get things done, too,” she said. Like other board members, she said she wanted to be thoughtful about what is changed and how.
Good acknowledges that the district could have communicated better with parents and the community. “I think still today some of the misinformation out there has created some negative feelings as to the swiftness of action. If we had done a better job of communicating some of the challenges we were facing … the public would better understand.”
Good recognizes the enormous additional load put on Runcie and said she views it as her duty — as a team member — to be supportive.
“I do believe things could have been done differently. I’m hoping as a board with Mr. Runcie’s assistance, we will make sure we can address all the concerns that have been highlighted.”
She stressed that schools have had safety procedures and drills in place for years.
Stoneman Douglas had fire drills but no lockdown drills, however, and staff did not know who could call a Code Red and under what circumstances, the state commission found.
Said Good: “There may be confusions from one campus to the next. I can’t speak to specifics.”
So why did it go so wrong in ? Good preferred not to fully answer. “I’ll just say it’s been a very difficult time for the community. … In hindsight, there are things that could have been done differently.”
“As a parent of three children in the school district, I don’t think anything ever feels like it’s moving fast enough,” Korn said. “Certainly security is our greatest priority.”
She said the district has been addressing various aspects of the tragedy, including “building infrastructure,” procedural matters, mental health support, and identifying troubled students.
“It has been a challenge to try to get things to move as quickly as I would like and I know the board would like,” she said. “At the same time, we are making significant improvement on all of those fronts.”
She said the district relied on Safe Havens’ recommendations. The district increased the number of radio purchases as well as intercom systems and bought digital surveillance cameras for all schools.
The district also plans to establish a central, round-the-clock emergency command center, which will eventually monitor all cameras. It’s expected to be ready for the 2019-20 school year.
Korn said she supports Runcie and the board relies on his input to make decisions. “We have made great inroads, but we have so much more to do. I believe he is up for that challenge.”
Laurie Rich Levinson
A businesswoman with an economics degree, Levinson rattled off how the district has spent more than $30 million from its reserves on safety measures since the shooting: more than $6 million to repair and replace surveillance cameras, $4.5 million for additional portable radios and devices to improve radio signals, $17 million for an intercom system, $3.2 million for a new office of school safety.
Levinson declined to discuss why such comprehensive evaluations and upgrades weren’t done years before. “I’m going to talk to you about the pace at which things have been done since the tragedy and what has been done.”
Mental health providers immediately came together, she said, to make sure there was funding for care in the aftermath of the horror.
Asked if there are enough school counselors and psychologists in the district now, Levinson said: “Absolutely not. That is an area where there needs to be more funding from the state.” More money came from Tallahassee after the shooting, she said, but it is still inadequate.
Levinson supports Runcie and suggested that any attempt by the governor to remove her would be a mistake.
“I was just re-elected five months ago,” she said. “The people spoke. We live in a democracy, and that’s what elections are for. I was a supporter of the superintendent then, as were the other two colleagues of mine who were on the ballot,” she said, referring to Korn and Murray. (Nora Rupert, who has been rougher on Runcie, also won, as did Lori Alhadeff.)
Levinson is frustrated that Stoneman Douglas has created so much strife.
“It’s time we focus on moving forward and healing, like in other communities where this has taken place,” she said.
Murray isn’t convinced a lack of policies and procedures contributed to the Parkland tragedy. She said even though the district didn’t have board-approved policies on many security issues, administrators are diligent about instructing schools how to handle those matters.
“We’ve had procedures in place since my children were in schools in 1970s and 1980s. They had fire drills and procedures about safety, bullying, drugs, and we’ve had training.”
Were Stoneman Douglas officials following procedures on Feb. 14? “I don’t know what they were doing,” said Murray, a former school bus driver and transportation supervisor. “All I know is what’s expected of any administrator. We have procedures, and we have drills that everyone is cognizant of.”
Murray explained why the board has kept quiet publicly and allowed Runcie to do most of the talking.
“I think everyone is being cautious because emotions are at an all-time high, criticism is at an all-time high,” she said. “Like any good organization, you put the information together and allow one person to carry the message. So far the superintendent has done a good job. We’re not always the most knowledgeable people.
“I know we’ve been criticized for transparency, but we are being sued by many different people. We want to make sure we get our facts straight,” she said.
Murray still supports Runice and says board members give him frank assessments in closed-door meetings
“Every board member has an hour a month with Mr. Runcie to discuss issues, and that’s where those conversations are had,” Murray said. “I don’t think there’s anything productive in criticizing and demeaning anyone, I don’t care if it’s the superintendent or staff, in the public eye.”
Seemingly easy fixes are not always so easy, Osgood said.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration released a major school safety report. So did the Marjory Stoneman Douglas fact-finding commission set up by the state. And the school board has recommendations from Safe Havens International. “That’s three different reports. As a policymaker we have to balance those reports. They don’t always agree,” she said.
Just marking “hard corners” in classrooms, out of a shooter’s line of sight, proved to be complicated. “If I go in and say here is a safe corner, now am I confusing that child that might think the closet will be safer?”
Or if a shooter attacks from a different angle, “the safe space is now unsafe,” she said.
Osgood, who has a doctorate in public administration from Nova Southeastern University, is incredulous that Stoneman Douglas security and administrators did not know how or when to call a Code Red, locking down the school. Osgood’s district includes many poor, minority neighborhoods where lockdowns are called frequently — usually because of dangerous people loose in the community.
Some other areas of the county, she said, perceive themselves to be safer and so do not call Code Reds, she said, alluding to Parkland.
Ultimately, Osgood believes a lot of what happened at Stoneman Douglas was because people there did not do their jobs properly.
“As a school board member I can’t really get into people’s personnel issues because of the law. But if I wasn’t a School Board member I could talk more in depth about that.”
She is a strong defender of Runcie, seeing an impressive turnaround of poor-performing schools.
Graduation rates are up, “operational efficiencies” have saved the district money, and low-level staff, such as bus drivers, have gotten raises. The previous two superintendents did not prioritize her district, she said.
“I have to look at the whole picture when it comes to making a decision about the superintendent,” she said.
Nora Rupert was chairwoman at the time of the tragedy, but was noticeably less vocal in her criticisms of the district during that time period. She said that was based on advice from district lawyers and fellow board members. “I was told not to speak up. You could open yourself up to lawsuits. Be careful what you say. The superintendent will do the talking.”
Rupert has become more outspoken in her criticism this fall after she won re-election and her term ended as chairwoman. “The press is an extremely important part of our society, and if we barricade ourselves from uncomfortable questions and just put our heads in the sand, my goodness, that doesn’t help anyone or anything,” she said.
She agrees the district has shown a lack of urgency in its reforms. Part of that is the bureaucracy involved in a large government agency, she said. “Things are not moving as fast as I would have liked to have seen.“ There’s no reason, she said, that changes that cost nothing were not implemented, such as marking off safer corners in classrooms.
Rupert and Alhadeff are the only two board members who have publicly called for Runcie to be fired.
“After the tremendous amounts of mistakes or missteps he’s made, if he were a teacher he would have been fired,” she said. “But not if you’re a chief.”
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