Updated: This story has been updated to clarify that there was confusion about whether surveillance footage was live or delayed on Feb. 14, as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School administrators communicated with law enforcement.
In early June, Andrew Pollack returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, furious.
On Valentine’s Day, his daughter, 18-year-old Meadow Pollack, had been murdered inside the school, victim to a shooting rampage that left 17 dead and 17 wounded.
During the months that followed, Pollack’s grief had merged with a combustible anger. Much of it was directed at the Broward County Public Schools. Like other victims’ family members, Pollack had come to believe that mistakes by the nation’s sixth-largest school district had helped make the shooting possible. He had also grown frustrated by what he viewed as a lack of urgency and empathy from Superintendent Robert Runcie.
Those emotions were ignited when the South Florida Sun Sentinel published a story about Stoneman Douglas campus monitor Andrew Medina, one of two people state investigators now believe had a chance to minimize the carnage on the day of the massacre. Medina had unlocked a pedestrian gate at the school, then left it unattended. A few minutes later, he watched from a distance as a former student carrying a black rifle bag got out of an Uber, walked through the open gate, and made a beeline for a three-story classroom building housing hundreds of students.
Medina couldn’t remember Nikolas Cruz’s name, he told the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in a videotaped interview the Sun Sentinel posted online. But he recognized Cruz as “crazy boy,” a deeply troubled young man whom the Stoneman Douglas security staff had once identified as the student most likely to shoot up the school.
Worried that Cruz might have a handgun, and recalling his training to “observe and report,” Medina never tried to stop the intruder. He radioed ahead to another campus monitor, David Taylor, that a suspicious kid was approaching. Cruz entered the classroom building through a side door.
Twenty two seconds later, the first shots rang out.
Still, Medina didn’t call a “Code Red,” the command to initiate a campus lockdown. Neither did Taylor, who sprinted to the building’s second floor and hid in a closet.
Had the alert been called, it may have prompted teachers on the third floor of the building to shelter Meadow Pollack and hundreds of other students behind locked classroom doors. Instead, when the building’s fire alarms went off, some of the teachers were unaware of the active shooter two stories below. They began ushering the teens towards the stairwells, to evacuate.
As Cruz made his way into the third-floor hallway, Pollack was among the dozens of students left exposed.
He shot her nine times.
After the massacre, grief and rumors and questions swirled through Parkland, a well-to-do enclave that had recently been named the safest city in Florida.
As he read the June 1 Sun Sentinel story, Andrew Pollack could barely contain his fury. He decided to head back to Stoneman Douglas to demand action. When the school had reopened, all the security staff had been returned to their same positions. Medina was still there.
“It’s not respectful to me or my daughter to have this piece of shit working at the school,” Pollack told Stoneman Douglas’s principal. “I don’t want to come back tomorrow and see this guy here.”
Still, it wasn’t the end.
Medina and Taylor were immediately reassigned, then fired at the end of the school year. Both later challenged their terminations, saying they acted in accordance with their training and bear no responsibility for the tragedy.
But a week after they were removed from Stoneman Douglas, the Sun Sentinel published another story.
Months before the shooting, Broward Schools detectives had found probable cause that Medina had sexually harassed two students at the school, the newspaper reported. One was Meadow Pollack. Medina reportedly whispered in the high school senior’s ear that she was “fine as f---.”
Though Medina denied the accusations, a district disciplinary committee had unanimously recommended he be fired.
Instead, Broward Schools’ HR director had overruled the committee and signed off on a three-day suspension.
For Andrew Pollack and other parents of Parkland’s victims, the revelation was gasoline on an already-burning fire.
Now, nearly 10 months after the shooting, Broward Schools has received at least 103 notices of potential lawsuits. Victims’ families accuse the district of sweeping trouble under the rug and failing to act on years’ worth of warning signs about Cruz. They also blame lax district policies and poor training for worsening the chaos on Feb. 14. And the families say Superintendent Runcie and the Broward County school board have prioritized protecting the district over getting to the bottom of what went wrong, repeatedly backtracking on promises and showing a distressing lack of compassion in the process.
“It kills me every day,” Pollack said.
“This was the most avoidable school shooting in the history of the country, and it feels like it’s still business as usual.”
A Profound Rift
Almost immediately after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, Robert Runcie found himself in uncharted waters.
Standing outside Stoneman Douglas on the evening of Feb. 14, the superintendent had granted an interview to CNN. He vowed the district would conduct a “thorough investigation.”
Forty-eight hours later, on Friday night, Runcie and his team were hunkered down at the school, managing the district’s round-the-clock crisis response. The FBI and the Broward Sheriff’s Office showed up. With search warrants. They wanted the Stoneman Douglas surveillance footage.
Without the video evidence, Runcie said, his ability to conduct a meaningful investigation went out the window.
And now there was also a more pressing problem. To make sure they got all copies of the footage, the FBI initially demanded the servers that power the payroll, attendance, and other data systems of the 271,000-student, 39,000-employee Broward district.
“We had to argue with them, ‘Look, you can’t take this,’” Runcie said. “I literally had to get the governor on the phone.”
Tall, soft-spoken, and deeply religious, the 57-year-old superintendent is quick to acknowledge that anything he’s been through pales in comparison to losing a loved one in a school shooting.
It’s also true, though, that there’s no real way to prepare for having 14 children and three employees killed on your watch. Or for finding yourself on the receiving end of the grief and anger that result. Or for handling the avalanche of problems that suddenly falls in your lap.
“You can practice all you want. The reality becomes very different,” Runcie said. “It absorbs you and takes over your life.”
What’s happening now in Broward County isn’t unique. After a school shooting, district leaders’ biggest challenge is often healing the profound rift that emerges with victims’ families. In Santa Fe, Texas, where a gunman killed 10 and wounded 13 at the local high school last May, parents also accuse district officials of inaction and insensitivity. As in Parkland, they’ve turned to political action, seeking to oust the superintendent and some school board members.
Just how difficult is it to shepherd a school community through such a time?
Few people understand better than Frank DeAngelis.
In 1999, when 13 people were gunned down at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., DeAngelis was the school’s principal.
He’d started at Columbine two decades earlier, as a history teacher and baseball coach. He ended up staying on as the school’s principal for 15 years, helping an entire generation of Littleton families rebuild their lives.
But it didn’t start out that way, DeAngelis said. For years, he was slammed with criticism and lawsuits.
“The media was portraying me as this clueless leader who didn’t care about kids. That hurt me more than anything,” he said. “But that’s where the relationships I’d built over 20 years helped. Parents knew the way I was being portrayed was not how I am.”
In Parkland, Runcie has had no such roots to anchor him.
He came to Florida in 2011, from Chicago.
His biggest backers are in the Broward business community, where his economics degree from Harvard and MBA from Northwestern, experience in the private-sector, and work to straighten out the school district’s finances have all earned high marks. In 2014, Education Week recognized Runcie for his work in smoothing over what had been acrimonious relationships between the school district and the nearly 100 charter schools operating in Broward County.
“I firmly believe that Superintendent Runcie is one of the most innovative public school leaders in the country,” said Bob Swindell, the president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, an area business-development group. “Anytime I need to reach out to him, he’s incredibly responsive.”
Since Feb. 14, Runcie has tapped that high-powered network for money and help. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, for example, the superintendent made numerous hospital visits with the family of 15-year-old Anthony Borges, who was touch-and-go after suffering five gunshot wounds on the third floor of Stoneman Douglas. Upon learning the Borges family needed help with their bills, Runcie said, he called up a local businessman and got him to write a $25,000 check on the spot. The superintendent also got a prominent restauranteur to donate free meals.
But something about such efforts didn’t connect.
“About a week after that, I guess [the Borges family] got an attorney, and I see him on TV blasting me,” Runcie said. “You start sometimes second-guessing yourself.”
In search of a compass that might guide him through the volatile emotional terrain, Runcie has drawn on his own experience.
When he was 8, he said, he’d watched as his mother was shot in the face on the porch of their Poughkeepsie, N.Y., apartment building. That was in 1969. The family had recently immigrated from Jamaica, where they’d been living in a cinderblock shack with no electricity or running water.
The incident doesn’t compare to what happened at Stoneman Douglas, Runcie said. But no one in his family ever got any counseling. He wanted Parkland to have better.
“That’s one of the reasons why I focused so hard on making sure we provided as many supports as we could,” he said. “Even if I couldn’t meet with everyone directly, at least I had social workers.”
The district helped open three “resiliency centers” in Parkland. Stoneman Douglas got two wellness centers of its own, plus trauma counselors, new guidance counselors, a new school psychologist, and therapy dogs. Liaisons were appointed to serve as direct points of contact for the families of injured students.
Runcie also mobilized Broward Schools’ $4 billion bureaucracy in other ways.
Since the shooting, for example, Stoneman Douglas has received new portable classrooms, to replace the building where the shooting occurred, which is still being treated as a crime scene. New security measures throughout the school include a 12-foot fence, classroom door locks, electronic building-access cards for staff, surveillance cameras, and stop-the-bleed kits. Stoneman Douglas this year has a total of seven new school police officers, campus monitors, and security specialists. Districtwide upgrades were also made to all schools’ video surveillance systems. Most Broward schools now have armed officers or guardians. Runcie hired an independent firm to conduct risk assessments of all 234 schools in the district.
“I would get emails and calls,” he said. “Some people felt like it was too much.”
Still, the gulf between the superintendent and the victims’ families kept growing.
Missed Warning Signs
In the weeks following Feb. 14, a fuller picture of the Parkland massacre—and the voluminous warning signs that were missed in the months and years leading up to it—came into view.
Just days after the shooting, news organizations forced the release of reports detailing the Florida Department of Children and Families’ interactions with Nikolas Cruz. In 2016, he’d posted a Snapchat video in which he cut himself and said he wanted to buy a gun. Mental-health workers had conducted a psychiatric evaluation, but determined he wasn’t a threat to himself or others.
The FBI also acknowledged it mishandled two tips about Cruz. Just over a month before the shooting, for example, someone warned the agency that Cruz was deeply disturbed and had an arsenal of guns and ammunition. The tipster was worried about him “getting into a school and shooting the place up.” The FBI didn’t follow up.
Then, the Broward Sheriff’s Office revealed it had nearly two dozen contacts with Cruz prior to the shooting. In 2016, they were told he had taken to Instagram to post pictures of weapons and threaten to commit a school shooting. In November 2017, the month Cruz’s mother died, the sheriff’s office received two calls suggesting he was upset, had access to weapons, and could be dangerous.
None of the incidents led to Cruz being arrested, which could have prevented him from legally buying the AR-15 assault rifle he used in the attack.
This was the most avoidable school shooting in the history of the country, and it feels like it’s still business as usual.
On the school district’s end, meanwhile, questions quickly arose over how officials from both Broward Schools and Stoneman Douglas had handled numerous incidents involving the troubled former student.
In September 2016, for example, two guidance counselors and a sheriff’s deputy at the school received reports that Cruz had told classmates he had a gun, was thinking of using it, and had attempted to kill himself by drinking gasoline. The information led to a home visit from a social worker, the Sun Sentinel reported. But Cruz was not forcibly committed. It was unclear if his home was searched for weapons.
The district also mishandled Cruz’s special education services on two separate occasions, the Sun Sentinel revealed. The first mistake led to Cruz attending Stoneman Douglas for several months without the help to which he was legally entitled. After poor grades forced him to withdraw from the school, the district later failed to follow up on Cruz’s request to enroll in an alternative school in which he had previously thrived.
And six months after he left Stoneman Douglas, and six months before he returned to kill 17 people, Cruz was caught trespassing at the school. No police report was filed.
For the victims’ families, such revelations never seemed to stop.
But action to correct the problems and hold people accountable never seemed to start.
The cumulative effect has been devastating, said Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was one of the first people killed inside Stoneman Douglas.
“Trust comes when you can expect people to do their jobs,” he said.
“That’s something that the school board and Mr. Runcie have really failed to grasp. That bond of trust that existed, for all the families in the area, has really been broken.”
Montalto has been a commercial airline pilot for nearly 30 years. His wife Jennifer is a stay-at-home mom. Like many Parkland residents, they moved to the area for its A-rated public schools. Until February, it was an idyllic life, full of good grades and color guard practices and PTA fundraisers. Jennifer volunteered in the Stoneman Douglas office. There was never much occasion to feel like they were on the receiving end of bureaucratic incompetence or indifference.
Then Gina went to school one day, and didn’t come home.
Now, Montalto asks himself in a never-ending loop, how did Broward Schools not have clear policies on staffing gates or confronting trespassers, nearly two decades after Columbine?
“You would hope that whoever it is that enters a campus unauthorized is immediately met with a challenge,” he said, bewildered. “That’s how it’s done in airports all over the world.”
In mid-November, Montalto sat inside Florida’s BB&T Center, a cavernous hockey arena in the middle of a vast parking lot.
He was there for four days of public meetings of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. The 16-member panel includes the fathers of two victims. A full report on what went wrong in Parkland is due January 1. Runcie was set to testify at the end of the week.
For the time being, though, the commission was meeting in closed session inside the center’s VIP lounge, to watch graphic surveillance footage of the killing spree.
Montalto waited outside, in an empty bar.
He thought about his 12-year-old son. Anthony is a 7th grader at Westglades Middle, right next door to Stoneman Douglas. He had a birthday coming up. It would be his first without his sister.
Montalto also argued with news producers from a Florida TV station. They were planning a report on a Nikolas Cruz fan club. Stand With Parkland, the advocacy organization created by the families of the killer’s 17 victims, was fighting to get the segment spiked.
This is his life now, Montalto said.
And Runcie doesn’t seem to get it.
That bond of trust that existed, for all the families in the area, has really been broken.
The 17 families just want the district to admit its mistakes and hold the right people accountable, Montalto said. And while they recognize the steps that have been taken, the families want swifter action on expanding basic security measures, such as establishing single points of entry at all Broward County schools—work that began years ago, with $800 million in bond money that Broward County taxpayers approved in 2014.
“We’re not asking for a laser-protected Thunderdome around the school,” Montalto said.
“We just need people to take care of what they’re paid to take care of.”
When the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission opened up for the public portion of its November meetings, though, the victims’ families found themselves being twisted into knots all over again.
Investigators revealed that prior to the shooting, two Stoneman Douglas students had gone to administrators with concerns that Cruz was looking up guns on school computers, had brought weapons to school, and had said he had guns at home. They described Cruz as a potential school shooter.
Assistant Principal Jeff Morford reportedly dismissed the concerns, telling one of the boys he should Google the word autism. Morford denied the interaction, investigators said. He did not respond to Education Week’s request for an interview.
The commission also heard about shortcomings in district policy and training.
Broward Schools’ emergency preparedness manual contained no section pertaining to “Code Red” procedures in the event of active shooters, state investigators said. The district also had no written policy on who could call or authorize such a lockdown.
A month before Cruz’s rampage, a Broward Schools detective had conducted a safety training for all Stoneman Douglas staff. There was a discussion of Code Reds, the commission heard. But many teachers said they couldn’t remember the last time the school had conducted such an active-shooter drill. Many weren’t sure who was authorized to initiate a full lockdown, or what the procedure to do so might be.
As a result, the investigators revealed, the first verified Code Red at Stoneman Douglas on February 14 wasn’t called until Cruz had already shot 24 people.
Another issue the commissioners discussed was “hard corners.”
During the January training, investigators said, the Broward Schools detective specifically suggested the establishment of safe areas in every classroom where an intruder would not be able to see—or shoot—children if the door was locked.
But on the day of the attack, just two of the 30 classrooms in the building where the massacre took place had such spaces taped off. Many would-be safe areas were cluttered with desks or cabinets. The district had no official policy.
“How many children were killed because they could not get into the hard corners, or as a result of not doing that correctly in the classrooms?” asked commissioner Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was killed by shots fired through the window of a locked classroom door.
“There were some, definitely,” answered Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission’s chair.
“One in particular who died on the line, because she was nudged out of the hard corner, because she couldn’t get in.”
Investigators then told the commission that a full nine months after the attack, Broward Schools still didn’t have districtwide policies on Code Reds or hard corners. Morford was still an assistant principal at Stoneman Douglas, charged with keeping kids safe and creating a culture in which they felt comfortable reporting suspicious activity to adults.
Commissioner Ryan Petty strained to make sense of the information.
His 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed inside Stoneman Douglas. He recently purchased a tourniquet to stow in the backpack of his 17-year-old son, who still attends the school.
“This is Ground Zero,” Petty told reporters. “But I don’t think there’s been a sense of urgency in the school district. And I don’t understand it.”
In an interview, Gualtieri, the no-nonsense sheriff chairing the commission, tried to offer perspective.
Like Petty, he found it inexplicable that the district had dragged its feet on such “low-hanging fruit” as Code Red and hard-corner policies.
But the sheriff also said he’d directly requested that Runcie back off of any internal investigations, because it would have interfered with the commission’s work.
Overall, he maintained, the district had been transparent and cooperative with the commission’s investigation.
“Believe me, I get it. People are looking to hang their hat on some hook, and they want a pound of flesh,” Gualtieri said.
“There are a lot of people that are in pain and will be forever because of this. But we also have to be fair, and it has to be fact-based and it has to be objective.”
‘The Human Piece’
For his part, Runcie disputed the notion that he and the Broward district haven’t acted with enough urgency since the Stoneman Douglas massacre.
Getting the new portable classrooms to replace the building where the shooting took place—in one-third the time it would normally take, the superintendent said—was a “massive project.” So was complying with Florida’s new state law mandating an armed officer or guardian at every school. And conducting security risk assessments of all 234 schools in the county.
When it comes to Code Reds, Runcie said, “clear directives” went out to all Broward County principals this school year. Active-shooter lockdown drills are now held monthly, including at Stoneman Douglas.
“Notwithstanding [whether] we have a policy in place or not, we’re getting it done in our schools,” Runcie said.
There are a lot of people that are in pain and will be forever because of this. But we also have to be fair, and it has to be fact-based and it has to be objective.
Inevitably, though, school shootings are followed by disagreements over the pace and scope of safety improvements. It doesn’t help that large public school districts are typically not the most nimble organizations. Even seemingly straightforward decisions often get tangled in a web of laws, policies, labor contracts, budget constraints, and public opinion. In a system like Broward’s, where an elected school board represents 2.1 million people in 31 different cities, slow is the norm.
After a tragedy, when demands for quick action are loud and persistent, how can education leaders manage the resulting tensions?
That’s where the “human piece” comes in, said Joseph Erardi, who became the superintendent of the Newtown, Conn., school district one year after a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary.
When he entered the picture, Erardi said, families’ grief and anger were still raw. Those feelings were constantly re-aggravated by a stream of impossible decisions, from how to commemorate the massacre to where to rebuild the school. Sometimes, the district made things worse, like when it failed to consider how classroom lessons on gun violence might impact Sandy Hook survivors.
To help hold the Newtown community together, Erardi said, he gave all the impacted families his direct line. He offered personal meetings whenever they needed them. He even invited everyone to his house for a barbeque.
“Just to listen, ask how we could help,” he said.
Now retired, Erardi works with the national school superintendents’ association, helping other district leaders responding to similar tragedies.
His main advice: Be honest. Be consistent. And understand that rifts only start to heal when people truly believe you are doing everything you can to help them.
So far, though, Parkland families say those suggestions read like a playbook of what Broward Schools hasn’t done. And with every misstep seeming to go viral on social media, Superintendent Runcie has often seemed at a loss to do more than simply absorb the resulting mistrust and hostility.
One big example: In the months after Feb. 14, the superintendent repeatedly denied that Cruz had participated in Broward Schools’ diversionary-discipline program, known as PROMISE.
The initiative is widely considered Runcie’s baby. It was touted by the Obama administration as a model for reducing the number of students of color who get a criminal record for things like fighting in school.
After the Stoneman Douglas shooting, though, the program became a lightning rod for some conservative activists and Parkland families. They argued that PROMISE contributed to a culture of lax discipline and underreporting of crime in Broward schools, which in turn kept Cruz from being held accountable for his long record of misbehavior as a student.
In a March op-ed, Runcie denounced attempts to link Cruz to the PROMISE program as “fake news.” At an April board meeting, he called such claims “reprehensible.”
Then, in May, he was forced to reverse course. Cruz had in fact been referred to PROMISE, after he vandalized a middle school restroom.
Parkland parents’ descriptions of Runcie’s handling of the situation fell on a spectrum, ranging from “weak leadership” to “full-blown cover-up.”
The superintendent, though, continued to defend his response. Runcie also said the controversy led to his family receiving a wave of racist and threatening emails, calls, and hate mail.
“That’s just something I have to deal with,” he said. “I put it in perspective. There are 17 families that will never see their kids again. I’m thankful for what I have.”
Before any such breach could be repaired, though, it seemed there was another crossed signal, insensitive remark, or district flip-flop.
One of the public-relations crisis consultants hired by Broward Schools was caught on tape making disparaging remarks about Parkland families.
“The survivors and victims’ families, they will say anything, because they are angry, and they want to blame,” said Sara Brady during a July speech to a conference of PR professionals. “You have to make business decisions, and you have to shut out their emotions.”
Brady, who was paid almost $75,000 for her services, later apologized.
Royer Borges, whose son Runcie visited in the hospital and arranged meals for, said he started feeling suspicious when the district began touting Anthony as a hero, then the superintendent made a public appearance at a high-profile march against gun violence. Cruz’s gun didn’t shoot itself, Borges said, and he struggled to see how the NRA could be responsible for an unattended pedestrian gate.
“It felt like they were hiding something,” Borges said of the school district. “Like they wanted to take attention away from themselves.”
And just a week after Runcie raised Parkland parents’ hopes by hiring a retired Secret Service agent to conduct an internal investigation, he reversed course and canceled the plan.
Perhaps the best illustration of the widening divide, though, was the experience of April Schentrup.
Schentrup’s 16-year-old daughter Carmen was killed inside her psychology class at Stoneman Douglas.
When the shooting happened, Schentrup was also a Broward Schools employee, in her seventh year as the principal of Pembroke Pines Elementary School.
When Schentrup didn’t return to work in the days after her daughter was killed, the district began docking her vacation time. And because Carmen’s funeral was local, Schentrup said, she was told she was only eligible for one day of bereavement leave.
By March, Schentrup was hoping to return to some kind of routine. She called the superintendent’s office to explore her options, including a possible part-time return to work.
Runcie told her that “being a principal is a full-time job,” Schentrup said. If he were to give her another position, “it would look like favoritism.”
Fed up, Schentrup signed up to speak at a May meeting of the Broward County school board.
“My family and other victims’ families didn’t get cards, letters, or emails of condolences from any board members,” she testified. “The only email we received was one blasted to the entire district, stating the school’s mass shooting would be lumped together as one tragedy for insurance purposes.”
In an interview, Runcie wrestled through several attempts to find an appropriate response.
Broward Schools will continue to do everything it can to support Schentrup, he started. He’d been trying to reassure her that she didn’t need to feel responsible for immediately returning to work. He’d gotten Schentrup’s vacation time restored and offered her a lengthy sabbatical, which she later ended up taking. It’s not worth arguing about in public.
At one point, the superintendent described how he’d sought advice on the situation from David Schonfeld, the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California.
“He goes, ‘Look, when folks are going through the kind of trauma and grief that Ms. Schentrup is going through, sometimes you can literally sit across the table, have a conversation with them, and they may not actually hear what you’re saying.’” Runcie recounted.
“You know, when he told me that, it kind of all made sense to me,” he said.
At the end of last school year, the district offered Schentrup a newly created position, as director of school safety and security. She accepted, hoping to make meaningful change from within.
But the brief detente quickly crumbled.
A month into the job, Schentrup learned a memo had gone to all school leaders, detailing new safety procedures for all Broward schools. None of her new colleagues had told her it was being developed. No one had even informed her the memo was going out.
Schentrup took a leave of absence in September.
“It’s hard enough losing a child this way,” she said.
“It made it even harder to have to fight for common decency at work.”
Runcie said he’s still not sure what to do. He’s going to keep praying for Schentrup, and all the victims’ families.
He’s been reading a book, the superintendent said. It’s called ‘The Choice.’ It’s the memoir of Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor who went on to become a renowned trauma therapist.
“One of the reasons I started it, is I was thinking about giving it to these families with a letter, for the holidays,” Runcie said.
One his biggest regrets is not pushing harder to meet directly with victims’ families quickly after the shooting.
Twice, Runcie said, he checked with local school leaders to see if such a meeting could be arranged. On both occasions, he said, he was told the families weren’t ready. Reluctantly, he agreed to give the families space.
His thoughts on that decision now?
“I should have followed my heart more,” Runcie said.
‘It Happened to Us’
By the third day of the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission’s November hearings, the simmering anger and disbelief and mistrust were palpable.
The VIP lounge at the BB&T Center was packed with police officers and news media, victims’ family members and staff from Stoneman Douglas High.
Second by second, state investigators detailed the events of February 14. Everything was pegged to the precise moment gunfire had erupted inside the school.
Two minutes and 38 seconds before he fired his first shot, Cruz exited the Uber and walked through the gate Andrew Medina had left unlocked and unattended.
As the gunman entered the first-floor hallway and shot Gina Montalto and three other students, David Taylor, the other campus monitor, was seen on surveillance footage, running up the opposite stairwell.
One minute and 31 seconds after the first shot, as Cruz was still shooting into first-floor classrooms, more than 125 students were milling about on the third floor, casually attempting to evacuate.
Two minutes and 54 seconds after the first shot, Cruz entered the third-floor hallway and shot geography teacher Scott Biegel and students Anthony Borges, Joaquin Oliver, and Meadow Pollack. Oliver dragged himself to a nearby bathroom, hoping to find refuge. But Stoneman Douglas administrators had recently ordered the door locked, to prevent students from vaping.
Three minutes and 16 seconds after the first shot, the first verified Code Red was called.
Forty-one seconds after that, Cruz moved into a third-floor teacher’s lounge, where he assumed a sniper position. Hundreds of students had evacuated other buildings on Stoneman Douglas’s campus, the result of erroneous reports of a gas leak. For more than two minutes, Cruz attempted to shoot the students through the lounge’s windows. Only the presence of hurricane glass, which fragmented the rounds, prevented the massacre from becoming dramatically worse.
Six minutes and 16 seconds after firing his first shot, Cruz exited the classroom building and fled the campus, blending in with a group of students heading past adjacent Westglades Middle School, which had not been locked down.
Thirty-one minutes and 46 seconds after the first shot, Stoneman Douglas administrators broadcast that Cruz was headed to the classroom building’s second floor. But there was confusion between the administrators and law enforcement as to whether the surveillance footage on the school’s camera system was live. The tape, it turned out, was actually on a 26-minute delay. Cruz was already a mile away. Two minutes earlier, he’d entered a Subway restaurant ordered a drink.
With each new detail, the room inside the BB&T center grew more still.
Finally, investigators said, one hour, 18 minutes, and 22 seconds after he began his rampage, Nikolas Cruz was arrested.
His voice quivering, Max Schachter, the commissioner whose son Alex was killed inside a first-floor Stoneman Douglas classroom, asked to speak.
“I just want to say that ever since this happened, the only thing the 17 families have wanted was to find out the truth and [see] some accountability,” Schachter told the investigators. “Because of you, I think we’re going to get that. Thank you very much.”
There was a short break, followed by a dramatic no-show from Scot Peterson, the armed sheriff’s deputy at Stoneman Douglas who resigned in disgrace after it was revealed that he had hidden on campus rather than confront Cruz.
Then Robert Runcie addressed the commission.
Slowly, the emotion drained from the room.
During his prepared remarks, Runcie spoke deliberately, telling the story of how he’d just finished awarding a new car to Broward County’s teacher of the year when he first heard there was a shooting at Stoneman Douglas.
He offered condolences to victims’ families and apologized for not returning their children home on Feb. 14.
And he gave a detailed rundown of the steps Broward Schools had taken in the months since the attack.
But when questions came from commissioners, the superintendent’s responses often fell flat.
In the months since the tragedy, what had the Broward district done about creating safe areas in all Broward classrooms?
“We’re currently working with our security risk consultant to develop some protocols and practices around that, and we intend to implement guidance for schools this year,” Runcie said.
What about discipline for district staff?
“I think there’s been sufficient detail that I’ve heard and seen this week that will enable us to certainly draw some preliminary conclusions that we can work to,” the superintendent responded.
Then it came time for Petty, the commissioner whose daughter Alaina was killed inside Stoneman Douglas, to question Runcie. The superintendent didn’t acknowledge Petty’s loss. When Petty asked how many schools now have single points of entry, Runcie was distracted and missed the question.
“I’d have to get back to you with that number,” he eventually offered.
By the end of the 90-minute session, Runcie had made some specific commitments. He vowed to introduce hard-corner and Code Red policies at the district’s first school board meeting in December. He also indicated that disciplinary action against some Stoneman Douglas staff members could come the following week.
But for the victims’ families, it didn’t seem to really matter.
I should have followed my heart more.
Royer Borges, for example, had sat stone-faced while investigators described emergency rescuers applying tourniquets to his barely responsive son’s leg, almost 40 minutes after Cruz had shot him in the third-floor hallway.
Borges had then listened intently as Runcie spoke.
After it was all over, he summed up his reaction to the superintendent.
“It didn’t happen to him,” Borges said.
“It happened to us.”
A New Reality
With fears around safety and shootings rising, school systems around the country now find themselves under considerable pressure to act.
There have been pleas from parents. There are new state laws. And the $2.7 billion per year school-security industry is now hawking everything from bulletproof white boards to high-tech facial recognition systems.
Still, though, there’s little evidence or consensus around the best way to actually keep kids safe.
That’s one of the reasons Runcie’s supporters say growing calls for his resignation are misguided.
The superintendent’s track record of steady improvement, plus his unwillingness to embrace simplistic solutions to complex problems, are reasons to the stay the course, said Marcell Haywood, a tech-company CEO and the education co-chair with the Broward Workshop, a nonprofit association of area business leaders.
“He is incredibly well-equipped to advancing the changes we need to see,” Haywood said. “Large organizations don’t turn around on a dime.”
Runcie himself says he has no intention of stepping aside. Though he’s recently been offered new opportunities, he said, there’s far more still to be done, including a nascent effort to push the Florida legislature to establish another fund for victims’ families.
“I believe in God, and I believe you keep doing as much good as you can, and in the long run, things will be OK,” Runcie said.
For the families of Parkland victims, meanwhile, recent weeks have brought stirrings of the accountability and action they’ve long sought.
It didn’t happen to him. It happened to us.
Several law-enforcement officers have resigned, been suspended, or been reassigned for their conduct during the response to the shooting.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission’s final report is due soon. This week, the group will refine its preliminary recommendations, a list that ran almost 100 pages long as of late November.
And the superintendent has followed through on the commitments he made before the commission last month. Drafts of new policies on emergency codes and “safer spaces” are currently under review by the Broward school board. Runcie also reassigned four Stoneman Douglas administrators—including Jeff Morford, the assistant principal who reportedly disregarded students’ warnings about Nikolas Cruz.
Even those changes, though, demonstrate just how slow and painful Parkland’s path forward is likely to be.
The board review will take weeks, if not months—the district, after all, still has to follow its policy for adopting policies.
And while victims’ families generally hailed the Stoneman Douglas staff reassignments as long overdue, many teachers at the school were outraged. Hundreds of students walked out to protest the announcement. And Broward principals’ union president Lisa Maxwell vowed to fight the moves, which she cast as disruptive to the fragile healing process underway at Stoneman Douglas and crushing to the administrators now being blamed for their students’ deaths.
“These people are suffering from PTSD, they’re not sleeping, their families are devastated,” Maxwell testified at the school board’s Dec. 4 meeting. “These individuals ran towards bullets on that day. No one asked them to do that. They did it as an automatic response, because they love kids.”
From her seat at the front of the room, Lori Alhadeff quietly took it all in.
Alhadeff’s 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed inside Stoneman Douglas.
The day after the massacre, she had been the one bearing impassioned witness, pleading on CNN for President Trump to take action to prevent more school shootings. In June, Alhadeff and her husband filed a notice of their intent to sue Broward Schools, saying the district’s negligence made it responsible for Alyssa’s death.
Now, though, Alhadeff represents Parkland on the Broward County school board.
She was sworn in Nov. 20, after campaigning on a platform of improving school safety and getting answers to how a disturbed former student managed to walk into a school with an assault rifle and murder 17 people.
During Alhadeff’s first official meeting as a board member, the scope of her new role became evident. She’s now responsible for overseeing the work of a superintendent who didn’t come to visit her in the seven days she sat shiva for her daughter. And for reining in cost overruns on roof repairs for Broward schools. And for balancing the burden of her own grief and trauma and anger against the burdens felt by the thousands of Parkland parents, students, teachers, and administrators whose lives have been forever changed.
Winning the board seat was empowering, Alhadeff said. She sees herself as a bridge between what needs to be done and the school district’s ability to actually make it happen.
But stepping into her new reality has also been more difficult than she could ever explain.
“I’m human,” Alhadeff said. “I lost a daughter.”
The Education Week Research Library contributed to this report.
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