Robert Runcie, the superintendent in Broward County, Fla., had just finished a big celebration—handing the keys of a new Toyota Camry to his school district’s teacher of the year—when the barrage of urgent text messages started.
There are multiple reports of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the texts from members of his senior staff said. Runcie’s chief of staff called almost immediately and confirmed the worst: The shooting reports were accurate and there would definitely be tragedies. By the time Runcie spoke directly to the Broward County sheriff, the magnitude of the tragedy began to hit home.
“It’s something that I know could happen, but never thought I would see it here in Broward County,” an emotional Runcie said in an interview with Education Week Wednesday night.
Authorities say a former student of the high school, Nikolas Cruz, 19, allegedly shot and killed 17 people after entering the school around dismissal time on Wednesday afternoon.
On Wednesday night, the school was a cordoned-off crime scene, but Runcie said he had seen some of the carnage through a window.
“You see young children’s bodies on the floor, lying there lifeless,"Runcie said. “It’s horrific, horrific.”
Cruz, who authorities said had been expelled from the high school, was enrolled at another district school, Runcie said, who added that federal privacy laws prevented him from releasing any additional information about the alleged gunman.
While the school district prepares for situations like this, including conducting active-shooter scenarios with local law enforcement, Runcie said no preparation is foolproof.
“Nothing—nothing in the world—is going to stop somebody who wants to create mass tragedies like this,” he said. “All we can do is minimize it, and that’s what the training does.
“You do the best that you can,” he said. “You prepare as much as possible, but as much as you prepare there is no preparation that is going to create a 100-percent level of safety.”
The shooting, which unfolded near the end of the school day, was contained to one building on the high school campus, Runcie said. He said he was proud of how teachers responded and expressed gratitude for the law enforcement response.
“These are their kids, these are their children,” he said. “These are our children, and ...our first mode of action is to protect the kids, and that’s what they did. I feel that the district and the entire community responded aggressively and as quickly as they possibly could.”
Classes and all activities at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are canceled through the weekend, and students and staff members will have access to counselors.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is a high-performing school of 3,300 students in Parkland, an affluent community in Broward County. It’s known for strong academics and extracurricular activities. Anthony Rizzo, the Chicago Cubs first baseman, graduated from the school.
“It’s just an outstanding place,” Runcie said of the high school.
The superintendent said he is worried about the families, who lost their “precious” children.
“No parent should ever, ever have to wake up, send their kid off to school as a normal day, and that kid never comes home again,” he said before pausing to collect himself.
A father of three children, Runcie said “there are no words that can describe the heartache, the loss, the suffering. It’s going to be a long time before we can recover from this as a community. It’s shaken me, and everyone I know, to the core.”
The superintendent expressed frustration about the prevalence of shootings in American schools.
“This is a national problem,” he said. “I don’t understand what is it going to take in the United States of America that we are going to continue to be an outlier in the world, with the type of gun laws that...are so lax that anybody can get a high powered automatic weapon so easily? What is it going to take for us to invest in adequate mental health resources for our citizens? What is it going to take?
“This is what needs to happen in this country. We can’t continue to have these tragedies [and] press conferences. We grieve for the victims and the community, and we all give our thoughts and prayers in earnest. But what is the follow-up action? It is going to take leadership at the state and national level to fix these problems. That’s the bottom line.”
Photo credit: Students released from a lockdown embrace following the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.
--John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.