Parents Lash Out at District Over Shooting

Parents, teachers, and students stand in line to ask questions of Broward County school officials during a safety meeting held last week in Plantation, Fla.
Parents, teachers, and students stand in line to ask questions of Broward County school officials during a safety meeting held last week in Plantation, Fla.
—Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP
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More than two months after the Valentine's Day mass killing of 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., fear and rage continues to grip a school system still reeling from the incident's aftermath.

During a public-safety forum last week in the Broward County school district that brought hundreds of participants, shaken students and enraged parents and educators appealed to school leaders to protect campuses from violence. They demanded fixes for what they consider lax security, the district's indifference, and a failure to act to stop the former student who brought an AR-15 assault rifle onto campus, where dozens were killed or injured.

Discipline Program Questioned

But many of those who spoke out had vastly different solutions for what should be done, turning the often emotional forum into a microcosm of the polarizing national debate on gun regulations, school security provisions, and mental-health services designed to prevent mass shootings.

Still, a number of those who addressed school leaders in the 257,000-student district did share a common concern: A program designed to help troubled students avoid arrests and referrals to law enforcement.

The diversionary program, called PROMISE, set up by the district as part of a 2013 agreement with law-enforcement agencies to clarify when to involve officers in student discipline, came under fire along with the district's behavior-intervention program for students who return to district alternative school campuses after committing crimes.

While two former students stood to speak about the program's benefits, many parents and educators argued that PROMISE, and other district programs, have created a pipeline for troubled students to re-enter schools often without proper intervention from law enforcement or mental-health services.

Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie pushed back against criticism of the district's discipline plan, which has become a major focus of debate in Washington as the Trump administration weighs whether it will revise or revoke Obama-era rules on school discipline.

That guidance—jointly issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice—warned schools that they may violate federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules or if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

Runcie told those in the audience that there was much misinformation circulating about the PROMISE program. Runcie plans to address questions about the program during a May 7 public forum.

During last week's forum, district leaders provided information and updates regarding school safety measures, state funding, counseling and support services for students and employees, and how the district plans to spend funds from a 2014 school board referendum to upgrade school security.

But students, parents, and teachers argued that the steps taken now have come too little, too late, and that they still don't feel safe.

From a Stoneman Douglas student who said his school—now subject to extra law-enforcement presence and security measures—feels like a prison to a student who said she bypassed those security checks, dozens of people with ties to the school shared stories of how the shooting has shattered their innocence and sense of security.

The meeting marked the first of several forums the district plans to host as it looks to gather community feedback and suggestions on how to secure its schools and help students and families feel safe again.

'Understanding and Grace'

Runcie told audience members that safety begins with a focus on the well-being of students, families, and employees and how survivors from similar incidents at Columbine High and Sandy Hook Elementary schools have lent support to Broward County.

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The superintendent disclosed a personal and painful story of how his mother was shot in a hate crime when he was 8 years old and how he struggled in the aftermath of that incident without counseling.

He acknowledged that, in a rush to protect the students still at Stoneman Douglas, the district didn't attend to the needs of families who either lost loved ones or had loved ones suffer serious injuries in the rampage.

Responding to dozens of questions, Runcie asked for "understanding and grace" as the district continues to search for solutions and responses to the shooting.

Vol. 37, Issue 28, Page 7

Published in Print: April 25, 2018, as Parents Lash Out at District Over Shooting
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