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Broward Superintendent Defends Parkland Shooting Response, Outlines Upcoming Safety Changes

Jessica Bakeman
Broward County school district leaders display a board listing actions administrators have taken to enhance school safety since the Parkland shooting.

Broward County schools' superintendent Robert Runcie outlined plans on Thursday to quickly implement some of the key safety recommendations from the state commission tasked with investigating the Parkland shooting, amid criticism from the panel's members, victims' families, and even the new Republican governor.

Runcie said the state's second-largest school district will have designated "hard corners" — safe areas in classrooms where students can hide out of the line of sight of someone looking through a window — in every classroom by the end of next month. He called them "safer spaces."

"Over the winter break, we set up safer spaces in 60 classrooms at [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School] and asked for feedback from students and staff," Runcie said during a news conference at the school district headquarters in Fort Lauderdale. "We're doing the same at several other schools throughout the district, and based on input, we'll make some changes. We'll make some adjustments. And then we'll begin to roll this out to over 20,000 classrooms in Broward County."

He said the district has ramped up efforts to install single points of entry at each school so they are done by the end of this year instead of within two years. The projects involve building a system of fences that direct visitors to only one secure door during school hours.

Runcie also highlighted the school district's newly inked deal with the Broward Sheriff's Office that allows police access to school security cameras during emergencies.

Members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission have hammered Runcie for lacking a "sense of urgency." The group was empaneled by the Legislature to find out what went wrong leading up and in response to the massacre that left 17 people dead nearly a year ago, and it recently released its first report with recommendations for lawmakers and school districts.

After taking office earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for his agency's mistakes in responding to the shooting. The governor has said he would consider firing Runcie, too, if he could. But the governor's power to suspend local officials extends only to elected, not appointed, officials. Runcie was hired by the school board.

Asked whether DeSantis' stance presents a threat, Runcie said he's focused on leading the district and plans to continue.

The superintendent took issue with characterizations that he has been slow to act. Runcie stressed the district worked aggressively to address Stoneman Douglas students' mental health needs, with limited resources.

"We responded in an all-hands-on-deck fashion. We pulled counselors, psychologists, therapy specialists — everyone that we could across this county, pulled them out of other schools, reducing services there, so we could help meet the need of the MSD zone through that time of trauma," Runcie said.

At a school board meeting earlier this week, the mother of a boy who was injured during the shooting argued the opposite.

"This district could be doing so much better at serving the students at MSD," said Lisa Olson, a former Broward County public school teacher whose son, William, was shot in the arm last year.

"Yes, there's a wellness center at the school and a resiliency center at the park," Olson said, listing steps the district has taken to make mental health care accessible to students. "But those feel like a district checklist put in place by the legal department."

She said administrators are "disconnected" from students and should have set up support groups or checked in personally with those who were most affected by the shooting.

"I believe the district and MSD want these children to heal — but need to stop focusing on due diligence and just extend your hand and open your heart," Olson said.

On the upcoming anniversary of the shooting, Stoneman Douglas students will have the option of coming to school for a half-day of community service activities or staying home with their families.

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.
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