This fall, the PTA at Riverglades Elementary raised nearly $42,000 through its “no-brainer” event—just write the school a check, parents were told, and call it a day.
In a normal year, said PTA president Cara De Meo, all that money might have gone to new laptops for students, or new keyboards for the music department.
But this year, there’s another priority to consider.
Improving school security.
Riverglades is just a few miles away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where a school shooting left 17 dead and 17 injured last February.
“It’s been upsetting for everybody,” De Meo said.
Eager for immediate action, the Riverglades PTA already spent more than $6,500 last spring for a new buzzer system to help secure their school’s entryway, plus nearly $3,000 for new stop-the-bleed kits for every classroom.
Now, Riverglades parents are asking some of the same hard questions as the families of the Stoneman Douglas victims. Can the 271,000-student Broward County school district keep their children safe? When it comes to addressing ongoing security gaps at the county’s 234 schools, can Superintendent Robert Runcie summon any kind of urgency from the district’s massive bureaucracy? And even in a place like Parkland, how much should parents realistically be expected to take on themselves?
“Everyone has come together to get a lot done,” De Meo said.
“But the PTA is there to enhance the school, not to protect the kids.”
Parkland parents who didn’t lose children inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas are sensitive to the special concerns of victims’ families.
Still, said Pamela Ofstein, many people in this small city of 37,000 have a story.
Ofstein’s daughter is a 4th grader at Riverglades, where she’s heavily involved in the PTA. She has another daughter in 8th grade at Parkland’s Westglades Middle. And her son is currently a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas High.
On Feb. 14, Ofstein said, her son texted her from inside the high school’s auditorium, telling her there was an active shooter on campus. Then the connection was lost. She was in Miami. Unsure if her children were OK, Ofstein scrambled to make it home.
In the days and weeks after the tragedy, she said, the close-knit Riverglades school community pulled together. They helped each other adjust to the law enforcement officers with long rifles who now stood watch outside their previously sleepy elementary school. The PTA also surveyed Riverglades parents about their safety priorities. Like other schools in the area, they requested a meeting with Runcie and his executive team.
A new system for buzzing in visitors was at the top of Riverglades parents’ wish list, Ofstein said, followed by security camera upgrades and fencing around the school.
At the meeting, she and De Meo agreed, Runcie and his team were attentive and courteous.
But the district’s message was clear.
“They were very receptive to any enhancement, if we were going to pay for it,” De Meo said. Anything that went through the district was going to take longer.
Together with Riverglades Principal JoAnne Seltzer, the PTA decided to be strategic.
Unwilling to wait for their top priority, parents footed most of the bill for the new buzzer system, which was installed over the summer.
Superintendent Runcie had already signaled that video camera upgrades would be a top districtwide priority in response to the Stoneman Douglas tragedy, so Riverglades parents decided to let that process play out on its own. The district paid for and installed that new system over the summer, too.
But the Riverglades PTA and principal decided to let the district handle the new security fencing. That meant going through centralized processes, such as legal review and vendor approval. The fence didn’t go up until mid-November—relatively quick turnaround for a school district, but painfully slow for some parents worried about their children’s safety.
“I think we went into it with eyes wide open,” De Meo said. “My expectations weren’t very high to begin with.”
‘Things Have Changed’
Runcie said he understands why the district’s efforts to upgrade school security don’t feel like enough for many people in Parkland.
“We have done a lot, and we need to do a lot more,” he said.
For many Parkland parents, it’s been an educational experience.
Like just about all of their neighbors, both Ofstein and De Meo said, they moved to Parkland for its A-rated public schools, close-knit community, and apparent safety. Prior to the shooting, they brought all of their education questions directly to administrators of the local schools their children attended. The Broward superintendent and school board were distant entities they had little reason to interact with.
And it certainly never seemed likely that the horrifying school shootings that appeared on the news could happen here.
Now, though, that insular bubble has been burst.
“No one knew where Parkland was before this,” De Meo said.
“It makes me sad to say that. But things have changed.”
Lead Graphic: Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie at left. Clockwise from left are parents Tony Montalto, Ryan Petty, Max Schachter, Andrew Pollack, Fred Guttenberg, and Lori Alhadeff.
Photography by Josh Ritchie for Education Week
Graphics by Gina Tomko