FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The superintendent of the Florida school district where a gunman killed 17 last year weathered an attempt Tuesday to fire him by a board member who lost a daughter in the shooting.
The Broward school board voted 6-3 to retain Superintendent Robert Runcie, rejecting a motion introduced by member Lori Alhadeff, who was elected to the board last year after her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa and 16 others died in the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Runcie supporters and opponents packed the board’s meeting room and an overflow area, and security was tight: A police officer escorted Runcie into the building and spectators were checked for weapons.
The district is the nation’s sixth-largest with 327 schools and 270,000 students.
After the vote, Runcie asked Alhadeff and the other victims’ parents to work with him moving forward and to use the tragedy as an opportunity to bring the community together.
“I can’t lift the pain of the victims’ families but I know pain,” Runcie said. He said his mother was shot and wounded while he stood next to her when he was 8 and that he dealt with the loss of several children when he was an educator in Chicago.
“I have witnessed a lot of loss. Grief and anger can really test and wreck your spirit, but you can’t let it wreck your life.”
About 80 parents and community members addressed the board prior to the vote, with only six speaking in favor of firing Runcie during more than four hours of testimony. The rest said he should be retained because he’s improved schools districtwide and reached out to minority communities. His supporters say he has led an academic rebirth in the district and note that the state gave Broward a “B” in its latest district grades. The state’s report took into account a graduation rate of 84 percent, a 10 percentage point increase over five years.
Brian C. Johnson, vice mayor of the suburb of West Park, said that while he sympathized with the Stoneman Douglas parents, he angrily called the effort to remove Runcie a “sham” and “a shameful attempt to make our superintendent a sacrificial offering to their god of irrational revenge.” He punctuated his remarks with an obscenity.
Board member Patricia Good said she supported Runcie because he has helped the community heal in the shooting’s aftermath. Using a phrase that she said others had unfairly employed to describe the lack of improvement in safety, she said firing him now would leave the district “spiraling out of control.”
“This has been a very difficult year, a very painful year. I have seen firsthand how this superintendent has dealt with some very emotional and complex issues with this tragedy. No one has walked in his shoes,” Good said.
Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex died in the shooting, was one of the few who spoke against Runcie, saying that not only did his policies allow the shooting but the district has a lower state grade and graduation rate than its neighboring districts.
“The most important thing the superintendent does, or is supposed to do, is to protect students and our teachers and educate our students and he has failed on all of those counts,” Schachter said.
Alhadeff, who has clashed frequently with Runcie since taking office in November, asked the board to look objectively at his performance. Citing a list of areas in which she said the superintendent had fallen short, she said the claims of Runcie’s supporters that he has improved the district’s academic performance are false. She said the number of “A” schools in the district has dropped during his administration and the gap in test scores between white students and minorities remains large.
At one point, Runcie briefly smiled and shook his head as Alhadeff spoke, but otherwise remained stone-faced.
The superintendent’s critics also have pointed to problems they said existed even before the shooting: They said bullying and other school problems were routinely underreported by Stoneman Douglas and other district schools and few did voluntary security assessments. Stoneman Douglas reported zero incidents of bullying among its 3,200 students between 2014 and 2017 and three incidents of vandalism, for example. Alhadeff said Runcie also failed to fully implement a security bond approved by voters in 2014.
Another target of criticism has been the district’s Promise Program, a student disciplinary system Runcie instituted shortly after he began as superintendent in 2011. Under Promise, students who commit petty vandalism, theft, harassment or other minor crimes, or who fight, are referred to an off-campus site for up to 10 days instead of the courts. They are assessed, given a course of treatment, attend classes and receive counseling. Those critics say Promise created a lenient atmosphere that allowed shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz to briefly attend Stoneman Douglas a year before the massacre despite a history of fights, threats and behavioral problems. He was placed in the program in middle school after breaking a bathroom faucet, but records are unclear if he completed the requirements.
The district says while the program might require some changes, it is a success. Out of 2,000 students referred in an average year, 90 percent never reoffend and less than 1 percent reoffend three times, it says.
Board member Laurie Rich Levinson said Runcie and the district have strengthened security since the massacre. She said guards have been added, active shooter drills have been increased, mandatory policies that students, teachers and visitors wear ID cards have been implemented and visitors can now only access schools through one entrance.
“It is complete B.S. to say nothing has been done for safety,” she said.