To stop the next massacre, Broward schools plan hiding places, real-time cameras

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s initial report announced

Superintendent Robert W. Runcie will hold a press conference to provide a progress report on recommendations for school districts outlined in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission's initial report
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Superintendent Robert W. Runcie will hold a press conference to provide a progress report on recommendations for school districts outlined in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission's initial report

One week after Florida’s governor ousted the sheriff over his department’s handling of last February’s Parkland massacre, the head of Broward schools, potentially facing a similar fate, unveiled a set of security measures to avert the next tragedy.

Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie rolled out the plan on Thursday in response to the release of a 446-page report of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which was brutally critical of both the Broward Sheriff’s Office and school system leadership.

Among the improvements outlined in Runcie’s “progress report,” the district said it has already installed 60 pilot “safe spaces” inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School classrooms — areas where students can take cover from an active shooter — and that 82 percent of all schools have revamped their campuses to have only one point of entry so that access can be better controlled.

Officials also said that the district signed an agreement with the Broward Sheriff’s Office that would provide law officers with remote, real-time access to any school’s security cameras.

Flanked by members of the school board, which now includes the mother of slain Stoneman Douglas student Alyssa Alhadeff, Runcie said the district would install “hard corners,” basically designated safe spaces, in all 20,000 classrooms in the district by the end of February.

Runcie said his focus is on further securing school campuses, not on his job security.

“I don’t even think about it,” Runcie said of the latter. “I think about the work that I have to do every day. When I get up every day, I think about how are the families and the students and the community, in terms of their loss. That’s the focus we all should have, from the governor all the way down.”

Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff, far right, whose daughter Alyssa was killed during the Feb. 14 massacre, listens as Superintendent Robert W. Runcie provides a progress report on recommendations outlined in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s report at the school board, Jan. 17, 2019. Between them are members Patricia Good, second from left, and Rosalind Osgood. CHARLES TRAINOR JR.

The initial investigative report issued Jan. 2 by the state-mandated commission did not render a judgment on whether Runcie or any leader should lose their job. It did, however, harshly criticize the school district for security breaches that allowed Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, 19, to enter campus with an assault rifle, and for the mishandling of warnings about Cruz made to a Stoneman Douglas administrator.

The 15-member commission also issued a series of recommendations aimed at improving school safety. Those included allowing teachers to volunteer as armed guardians at their schools, implementing Code Red policies for responding to an emergency and creating a new Office of School Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness with a $3.2 million budget and a mandate to “centralize [safety] training across the district.”

“There remains non-compliance and a lack of urgency to enact basic safety principles’’ in schools throughout Florida, the report noted.

Runcie’s response Thursday was that “we don’t do knee-jerk reactions to things. We don’t want to just have 100 percent of our focus on what the last shooter did. These things need to be thought out.”

Runcie called the past eight months “exhausting,” noting that the district dipped into at least $30.2 million of its reserves “this August alone” in an effort to update surveillance and radio equipment, as well as public address systems in some schools.

“We will keep pushing on the state Legislature that they need to help in order to effectively implement their recommendations,” Runcie said. “Otherwise they become effectively unfunded mandates.”

Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert W. Runcie provides a progress report on recommendations for school districts outlined in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s report at a press conference at the school board, Jan. 17, 2019. CHARLES TRAINOR JR.

Runcie, who called the investigative commission’s recommendations “smart,” emphasized that the Broward school system began making improvements to its policies before the initial report was released, and that the district has so far complied with more than half of the recommendations.

Shortly after the Feb. 14 shooting, which killed 14 students and three staff members, the district pulled scores of counselors and mental health professionals from other area schools to tend to the emotional needs of students and staff in the Parkland community. Officials say there continues to be two wellness centers on campus.

Safety policies will be audited on an annual basis with “surprise visits,” and the district will continue to improve its safeguards in an “aggressive” manner, Runcie said, adding that he wants to create a “culture of safety” by having all gates locked during school hours and having them monitored when they are open. Students, staff and visitors will continue to wear IDs on lanyards.

Runcie said the district will continue investigating how Stoneman Douglas administrators handled the events leading up to the shooting.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office this month, said during a news conference last Friday that the “egregious failures” of the school district may warrant Runcie’s removal. At that same news conference, DeSantis announced the removal of another heavily criticized individual, Sheriff Scott Israel. Upon arriving at the besieged school, some of Israel’s deputies took cover behind their cars rather than rush into the freshman building to confront the killer.

The same day he announced Israel’s removal, the governor ousted Okaloosa County Schools Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson for the district’s handling of a child abuse incident. Jackson was elected to her position, while Runcie was appointed by the school board.

DeSantis said he did not know if he had the power to remove Runcie, although Florida statutes state that a governor may remove “any board member for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty” or other qualifying actions.

“I don’t know that, to be honest,” he said of the limits of his authority to remove an appointed superintendent. “I know for sure I can do an elected superintendent. That would be something I would want to make sure I have the authority to do.”

Runcie said he intends to remain attentive to school safety while keeping academics a priority.

“Since Feb. 14, we’ve worked on nothing but security and safety — sometimes, I think, at the expense of our core mission,” Runcie said. “Sometimes we have to remember that this is an education institution. Parents across Broward County are sending their kids to school. Yes, they’ve got to be safe, but they also need to get a great education and we can’t lose sight of what our core mission is.”

Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.
Martin Vassolo is a general assignment reporter on the Miami Herald’s metro desk. He was a member of the Herald’s reporting team covering the 2018 midterm elections and Florida’s recount. Previously, he worked as a political reporting intern with the Herald and as editor-in-chief of the University of Florida’s student newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator.