Black community and Parkland families clash at contentious Broward school safety meeting

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants statewide grand jury into school security across state

Governor Ron DeSantis announced Feb. 13 at the Broward County Courthouse that he filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court to form a statewide grand jury to examine school safety across the state.
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Governor Ron DeSantis announced Feb. 13 at the Broward County Courthouse that he filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court to form a statewide grand jury to examine school safety across the state.

The long lines of cars and media trucks filing into J.P. Taravella High on Monday night passed by a row of bold red signs that read: “Protect our children. Fire Runcie.”

That set the scene of a three-hour school safety town hall that grew contentious between staunch supporters of Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie — largely, the African-American community — and his fiercest critics: the families of the victims killed in the mass shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Fourteen students and three faculty members were killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, school shooting.

Superintendent of Broward Public Schools, Robert Runcie, addresses Wednesday's news that the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, has asked for a grand jury investigation into Broward's school system following the tragedy in Parkland.

District officials had to open the school cafeteria to accommodate the spillover crowd at the Coral Springs high school as the auditorium maxed out its capacity of 1,000. The panelists were district administrators, school board members and security experts, including the executive director of the district’s security consultant, Michael Dorn, and its new chief of school safety, Brian Katz.

Dorn said the most important finding his company, Safe Havens, International, found after 1,000 school site visits was that the district lacked the oversight and structure for massive school safety efforts.

“There wasn’t enough structure, there weren’t enough people to oversee an extremely large safety network,” he said.

As speakers asked pointed questions of the district, many from the audience yelled or interrupted. But the crowd applauded and cheered wildly when Runcie’s supporters spoke or when a speaker referenced the district leaving minority students behind.

“Just as you feel strongly about getting rid of Bob Runcie, we feel just as strong that it ain’t going to happen,” said state Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill.

Kelly Davis, a local radio personality, said he came Monday night to represent the families in central Broward County.

“They’re too busy working and they’re frustrated because they feel that the income of their neighborhood does not allow them to make the noise like the Parkland parents,” he said.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime died in the shooting, commented on the tension in the room.

“The bullet that shot my daughter did not know what color she was and what socioeconomic status she was,” he said. “I am frustrated as hell at what is happening in this room tonight to make this about color and socioeconomic status. This is about security.”

Guttenberg then turned to address Runcie.

“Why should you stay in your job?” Guttenberg asked. “This community is right now struggling with what has gone on over the past year. And candidly, I do, I can’t help but blame you. My daughter is dead and this community is falling apart.”

“Leadership is not, in my view, about cutting and run when it gets really tough,” Runcie said. “It’s my responsibility given the fact that this occurred under my watch as superintendent, I need to fix it.”

Runcie also reiterated his support for the grand jury investigation called by Gov. Ron DeSantis to examine how school districts, particularly Broward, comply with school safety laws. The Florida Supreme Court granted that request earlier Monday.

A few speakers called for the the district to abandon or overhaul the Promise program, the district’s disciplinary diversion program that drew heavy criticism after news reports noted the district assigned Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz to the program but he never completed it. The Broward County School Board will discuss changing its discipline matrix at a board meeting Tuesday morning.

Many local pastors heralded the Promise program as an antidote for the school-to-prison pipeline and praised Runcie for his efforts to improve the graduation rate among black boys.

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Colleen Wright returned to the Miami Herald in May 2018 to cover all things education, including Miami-Dade and Broward schools, colleges and universities. The Herald was her first internship before she left her hometown of South Miami to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida. She previously covered education for the Tampa Bay Times.