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At Tense, Emotional Forum, Students Report Safety Threats Directly To Broward District Leaders

Dozens of students, parents and school staff members lined up at two microphones in the auditorium at Plantation High School on Wednesday night to share their fear and anger with Broward school district leaders.

They spoke of safety threats that have been mishandled, security protocols that have been applied inconsistently and generous offers of help that have gone unanswered.

Superintendent Robert Runcie and his top administrators apologized, gathered contact information and promised to follow up, and pledged more chances for conversation. School board members sat and listened silently.

One of the most dramatic exchanges of the night came when two students from Charles W. Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines described an incident they say happened two weeks ago when a male student threatened to stab 20 of his peers.

The two girls said they reported it to their school administrators, but the student was allowed to return to school. They also said they contacted Runcie and others at the district level but got no response.

“How does that happen?” a senior girl said. “How are we supposed to feel safe in a place that we’re not safe?”

Runcie asked his staff members to exchange contact information with the students, and he told them to call him directly if they didn’t feel as if the incident had been properly handled.

“I’m extremely upset sitting up here and hearing that this has occurred at the school,” Runcie said. “And it doesn’t sound like the appropriate action has been taken.”

A student and a teacher from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School also reported what they described as lax or inconsistent security at the school since the Feb. 14 shooting that resulted in 17 deaths.

The student said she has been bringing a regular backpack to school in addition to the clear plastic one she’s now required to use as an “experiment” to see if she’d be stopped or questioned. She hasn’t been. A district administrator told her that the searches are “randomized.”

Another Stoneman Douglas student yelled out from the audience: Confessed shooter “Nikolas Cruz was random!”

Two speakers said they’ve written e-mails and called district officials offering donations of security upgrades to Stoneman Douglas but haven’t heard back.

Others cited a wide range of grievances: They argued that the district was spending too little on teacher salaries, to which Runcie said the state under-funds education. They argued students and teachers don’t know about the counseling resources that are available to them; Runcie responded that he’s planning a district-wide educational “mental health day.”

Also during the forum, Runcie shared a personal experience that informed his response to the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

When he was 8 years old, he witnessed his mother get shot in what he called a hate crime. She survived.

“We received no counseling. We received no therapy. No accommodations in school — kind of just had to suck it up, put on a mask and go to school,” Runcie said of the experience. “We never talked about it in my family. It was like it never happened.”

He said he wants better for Stoneman Douglas students, and providing grief counseling and other mental health services has been his priority. He told WLRN this week he’s working on securing long-term care for students, including from specialists in treating trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.