Broward County

Students, teachers at Stoneman Douglas protest removal of assistant principals

Stoneman Douglas teachers protest reassignment of assistant principals and security specialist

Marjory Stoneman Douglas teachers protested outside of the school before the start of classes Tuesday, after learning that three assistant principals and the school security specialist were being reassigned.
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Marjory Stoneman Douglas teachers protested outside of the school before the start of classes Tuesday, after learning that three assistant principals and the school security specialist were being reassigned.

Fed up with what they view as another blow to a suffering school community, a few hundred students walked out and about 60 teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High protested the sudden reassignment of three assistant principals and the campus security specialist.

Teachers donning their signature maroon #MSDSTRONG shirts lined up in front of the school marquee early Tuesday morning. Some brought handwritten posters reading, “Respect teachers’ agency,” and “Who is this helping?” and began chants with “Bring them back!”

Later around 10:45 a.m., scores of students strolled out the front gates and onto Pine Island Road, past Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies, and walked to nearby North Community Park.

But as students crossed the street to get to the park, they were shouted at by a man with a megaphone who urged students to head back to school in honor of the victims, shouting their names. Students shouted back. “You didn’t know them!” one said.

The tense interactions revealed a vast divide within a community forever changed by tragedy, with charged emotions on both sides. Some students and teachers felt those reassigned staffers did the best they could when 17 were killed on Valentine’s Day and were unfairly used as scapegoats. But some of those who lost loved ones demanded accountability for all that went wrong that day and the events leading up to it.

Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack who was among those killed in the freshman building, watched as students walked out.

“The teachers are a disgrace,” Pollack said with his German shepherd, Sonny, beside him. He pointed to disorganization over calling for a lockdown on the day of the shooting and how the gates were left open. “So no one should be held accountable for that?” he asked.

Teachers received notice at an impromptu meeting Monday afternoon that assistant principals Jeff Morford, Winfred Porter and Denise Reed and school security specialist Kelvin Greenleaf will be reassigned to district sites following the findings of a state panel created to investigate the school shooting. The district did not provide any further information.

“If these people were such a problem, why didn’t they pull them out at the beginning of the school year?” asked American history teacher Gregory Pittman.

Students and their families learned of the news through an email sent by Principal Ty Thompson.

“They were amazing in every way, shape and form,” said Hailey Jacobson, a 14-year-old freshman carrying a “Bring them Back” sign in support of the four who were reassigned. “They wanted everyone at the school to be OK.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students walk out of class to protest the reassignment of three assistant principals, a decision made by Superintendent Robert Runcie following findings from the MSDHS Public Safety commission, on Tuesday, November 27, 2018. Carl Juste

Experts at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission hearing two weeks ago testified that Greenleaf and Morford were said to have entered the security camera room approximately 7 minutes and 15 seconds after the first shot was fired. They relayed what they saw on video for the next 30 minutes, and at one point mentioned it was a delayed feed to Porter, who was in charge of security, and former school resource officer Scot Peterson, who later resigned.

But no one told police the feed was delayed. The confusion led to law enforcement officers searching for Nikolas Cruz when he had, in fact, already fled the campus.

Reed was not mentioned in that presentation.

Scot Peterson, former SRO at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, did not show up at the MSD Public Safety Commission in November 2018, however, his attorney addressed the Commission while Superintendent Robert Runcie gave a personal apology to parents.

Before classes started for the day, English teacher Debbie Jacobson held up a yellow flier that read, “I was hired by Denise Reed and Winfred Porter.”

“Supposedly we’re safer now. Supposedly,” she said. Next to her, Debbie Wanamaker, who worked in student services under Porter and is the mother of a daughter who was in the first classroom shot on Feb. 14, chimed in.

“How are removing the staff members making us safer?” Wanamaker said. “It’s beyond a gut punch, what they’re doing.”

Some teachers saw the district’s decision as removing their support system. Superintendent Robert Runcie, they said, has never visited the school to meet with staff following the tragedy.

“When I’m having a bad day where I don’t know where to go, I go to Ms. Reed. I go to Mr. Porter,” said ninth grade English teacher Felicia Burgin. “They’re not here anymore. Where do I go? We need someone to go to when I’m having a moment because we’re humans. We’re not just teachers.”

Spencer Blum, a 17-year-old senior, came outside to support a few of his teachers in the protest. He pointed to the pin on his school lanyard: “We call BS.”

“The four people that were mentioned ... they are generally well liked throughout the school, faculty and parents,” Blum said. “With this being so sudden, it makes the county seem like they’re pointing fingers and that heads need to roll.”

And if anyone’s head should roll, he said, “Runcie needs to go.”

Brooke Bowsman, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas in May, came back to her alma mater to protest the reassignments. She said Porter and Greenleaf supported her throughout high school, even attending her track meets.

“I went to Douglas all four years and they treated me like their own daughter,” said Bowsman, now a freshman at Florida Atlantic University.

She said if anyone should be held responsible for what transpired that day, it’s the principal, Thompson.

“It’s not Porter, Reed, Morford or Greenleaf,” she said. “It’s not their job to go into a building being shot up.”

A few hundred students out of the approximately 3,300 enrolled walked out of the school. Some students returned to class after walking out, while others said they were told there would be consequences for leaving.

The man who used a megaphone to dissuade students from walking out, Gurmeet Matharu, a 45-year-old Parkland resident, said it was about time for accountability.

“We’re actually in shock we have to be out here when we’re finally seeing some accountability,” he said.

Matthew Herz, a 15-year-old freshman who says he was friends with Joaquin Oliver, who was among those killed, said he didn’t walk out because he feared repercussions.

“I did email the school board saying that this is not OK and brings back memories of the shooting day,” he said. “The whole community is affected again.”

Denise Engle, a retired nurse, came out to the protest to support Reed, one of her close friends. She said her friend was baffled by the district’s decision.

“They have to point the finger, the School Board, and they need to find a fall guy,” said Engle, 63, of Parkland. “There is not anyone I know in education more dedicated than Denise Reed.”

As teachers filed back into the school for the day, Thompson hugged each one at the door.

Around 12:30, he sent an email to the staff with the names of the new administrators. They are: Ron Adam, an assistant principal from Coral Springs High School and a former Stoneman Douglas assistant principal; Teresita Chipi, an assistant principal from Blanche Ely High School and a former Stoneman Douglas science teacher; Daniel Lechtman, an assistant principal from Falcon Cove Middle School and a former Stoneman Douglas behavior specialist and science teacher, and Darius Saunders, an assistant principal from South Broward High School and longtime Coral Springs resident.

A second walkout involving fewer than a dozen students took place at 1:15 p.m., according to district spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan. She also said 30 students staged a sit-in at the school’s student services office.

Brennan said students who chose to return to school after the walkouts were allowed, adding that all events took place without incident and no disciplinary measures are planned.

At a school safety forum held at Piper High in Sunrise, Superintendent Runcie acknowledged the peaceful demonstrations among students and teachers.

“We will continue to work with the commission and we hope to receive additional material from the commission to review it and look at the response of staff to the tragedy as well as the preceding events,” he said. He also vowed to visit with the Stoneman Douglas students and staff next week to listen to their concerns.

WLRN reporter Jessica Bakeman contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.
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