Broward County

Blood and bullet holes remain but schools chief doesn’t want lawmakers to look away

Somber moments at the memorial site for Douglas shooting

A makeshift memorial outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland turned into a gathering point for the community to grieve and remember the victims.
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A makeshift memorial outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland turned into a gathering point for the community to grieve and remember the victims.

For the past five days, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie has become a grim tour guide to the deadliest high school shooting in American history.

Between funerals, press conferences and around-the-clock meetings in a makeshift “war room” set up in the principal’s office at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Runcie has accompanied state lawmakers and members of Congress as they visit the school. With police leading the way, they have retraced the gunman’s path through the freshman building: past bullet casings, shattered windows, walls pockmarked by gunshots and pools of blood.

It’s a sickening tour of the carnage that claimed 17 lives last Wednesday. And it’s one that Runcie has taken many times in the days since. He can’t look away. These are his students — “our babies” as he calls them — and his teachers. And he wants to make sure no one else can look away either.

We only have one opportunity to make sure they understand what was inflicted on our community.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie

“We’ve given them detailed tours and explanations of what has happened so they become sensitized to the tragedy and we can get the support we need,” Runcie said. “We only have one opportunity to make sure they understand what was inflicted on our community.”

Runcie has had little time to grieve. In a single afternoon, he was thrust into the national spotlight, where he went from being superintendent of the nation’s sixth largest school district to a vocal proponent of stricter gun control laws — and a critic of the lawmakers who he says have “fallen short” when it comes to preventing school shootings.

“This moment is a moment where I feel that the victims’ lives, those that were injured, the community that has been hurt by this, that all of this can’t be in vain,” he said. “We don’t have sensible gun laws or appropriate investments in mental health services. It’s not one or the other. We need both.”

0435 Candlelight VIGIL shooting Day 2 021518
Mark Rodriguez holds a sign during a vigil for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims at Pines Trails Park & Amphitheater on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2018. AL DIAZ

Runcie first saw the evidence of bloodshed in the freshman building immediately after the shooting. He had just finished awarding the school district’s Teacher of the Year with a new car when he started getting text messages about a possible incident at Stoneman Douglas High.

The vast majority of the alerts Runcie gets about threats against schools end up being false alarms, but he quickly realized that this was different. His chief of staff, who sounded “shaken,” called with more information.

“It really began to look like a very serious problem,” Runcie said. As he headed toward Stoneman Douglas High, Runcie called Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, who was already at the school.

“That’s when he just started describing to me the horrific scene he had witnessed,” Runcie said. “It was almost unbearable news at that time.”

As Runcie approached Stoneman Douglas High, he saw police and ambulances rushing to the scene and heard helicopters overhead. He had to fight his way through traffic to get to the school. “It looked like the whole county had descended on Stoneman Douglas with first responders and law enforcement,” he said. “They were just coming and coming nonstop.”

At that point, students were still being evacuated. Law enforcement officers briefed Runcie on the shooting. As they went through the freshman building he could see bodies lying on the ground and blood on the floor.

Runcie and his staff set up a “war room” in the principal’s conference room and got to work planning grief counseling centers and other support for survivors and for the victims’ families.

Runcie also addressed the media. “It is a day that you pray, every day I get up, that we’ll never have to see,” he said. “It is in front of us and I ask the community for your prayers, your support, for these children and their families. We’re going to do whatever we can to come together as a community to pull through this and we will.”

That was the first of dozens of interviews, many of which Runcie has used to call for “sensible” gun control.

Josh Levine, 17, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, stands at the corner of Westview Drive and University Drive, protesting for tighter gun control laws on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. AL DIAZ

It’s an unlikely role for Runcie, a businessman who never planned for a career in education. The son of a Jamaican sugar cane farmer, Runcie immigrated to New York at the age of six. He went on to study economics at Harvard, where he met his wife Diana. The couple moved to Chicago and raised three daughters while Runcie worked in finance and started a computer consulting firm.

In 2003, Arne Duncan, then head of the Chicago school district and later Secretary of Education under Barack Obama, asked Runcie to oversee the district’s technology department. Runcie went on to serve in other administrative roles, including as chief of staff for the Board of Education, before becoming the Broward schools superintendent in 2011.

During his eight years working for the Chicago school district, Runcie saw a different type of gun violence claim the lives of his students. Every day, he would get messages on his BlackBerry about the students who had been shot overnight, victims of the city’s brutal gang violence. Hundreds of Chicago public school students were shot and wounded and dozens were killed every year. But none of them died at school.

Before Wednesday, however, Runcie said he had never spoken publicly about gun control.

“But it would be irresponsible for me not to talk about it at this point,” he said. “I know there are lots of different sides to it and folks land on lots of different places, but leadership sometimes is taking a position that some people don’t like. It may be a position that you feel like you’re climbing uphill sometimes.”

Let me just say if we provided every service that we could and did all that in exemplary fashion, if he can still get access to guns, what’s the point of all this?

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie

That’s not the only uphill battle facing the Broward schools superintendent. In the coming weeks, Runcie will have to answer tough questions about whether the school system could have done more to help Nikolas Cruz. The confessed shooter had a long disciplinary record in the school system, where he bounced between schools, spending time at Pompano’s Cross Creek School — a campus for students with behavioral issues — before attending Stoneman Douglas High and various adult education programs. Cruz had also been on the Florida Department of Children & Families’ radar and the subject of two tips reported to the FBI that were never fully investigated.

But Runcie said he doesn’t see the value in blaming the school district, or any other agency, for failing to prevent the tragedy. “Let me just say if we provided every service that we could and did all that in exemplary fashion, if he can still get access to guns, what’s the point of all this?” he said. “This is a systemic problem we have that isn’t about blaming one agency or the other.”

That extends to the FBI. “I don’t want to sit here and be Monday morning quarterback against the FBI,” he said. “The FBI, to their credit, has acknowledged there’s an error made there, a pretty significant one. The question now for them is how to fix this to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Runcie said that if lawmakers don’t pass stricter gun control laws, however, the burden for ensuring it doesn’t happen again may ultimately rest on the shoulders of the Stoneman Douglas High students and the young people around the country who have joined their burgeoning movement. Since Wednesday’s shooting, Broward students have spoken at anti-gun rallies and chanted “No more guns!” at vigils. They have called for national walk-outs and a “March for Our Lives” in Washington, D.C.

“I am more encouraged than I ever would have been previously because our students are on the front line of pushing the change that we need because our generation hasn’t been getting it done,” Runcie said. “Either they’re going to force this generation to get it done for them or they’re going to do it themselves.”

Miami Herald staff writer Carol Marbin Miller contributed to this report

Kyra Gurney: 305-376-3205, @KyraGurney