Hide, deny, spin, threaten: How the school district tried to mask failures that led to Parkland shooting
For months, Broward schools delayed or withheld records, refused to publicly assess the role of employees, spread misinformation and even sought to jail reporters
By Brittany Wallman, Megan O’Matz and Paula McMahon
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Immediately after 17 people were murdered inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the school district launched a persistent effort to keep people from finding out what went wrong.
For months, Broward schools delayed or withheld records, refused to publicly assess the role of employees, spread misinformation and even sought to jail reporters who published the truth.
New information gathered by the South Florida Sun Sentinel proves that the school district knew far more than it’s saying about a disturbed former student obsessed with death and guns who mowed down staff and students with an assault rifle on Valentine’s Day.
After promising an honest assessment of what led to the shooting, the district instead hired a consultant whose primary goal, according to school records, was preparing a legal defense. Then the district kept most of those findings from the public.
The district also spent untold amounts on lawyers to fight the release of records and nearly $200,000 to pay public relations consultants who advised administrators to clam up, the Sun Sentinel found.
School administrators insist that they have been as transparent as possible; that federal privacy laws prevent them from revealing the school record of gunman Nikolas Cruz; that discussing security in detail would make schools more dangerous; and that answers ultimately will come when a state commission releases its initial findings about the shooting around New Year’s.
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Beyond that, though, the cloak of secrecy illustrates the steps a beleaguered public body will take to manage and hide information in a crisis when reputations, careers and legal liability are at stake.
It also highlights the shortcomings of federal education laws that protect even admitted killers like Cruz who are no longer students. Behind a shield of privacy laws and security secrets, schools can cover up errors and withhold information the public needs in order to heal and to evaluate the people entrusted with their children’s lives.
Nine months after the Parkland shooting, few people have been held accountable — or even identified — for mishandling security and failing to react to signs that the troubled Cruz could erupt. Only two low-level security monitors have been fired.
Three assistant principals and a security specialist were finally transferred out of Stoneman Douglas last week as a result of information revealed by the state commission, but the district refused to say exactly what the employees did wrong.
“Obviously it seems to me there were multiple failures in the system,” said longtime businessman John Daly Sr. of Coral Springs, who with a few others started the activist group Concerned Citizens of Broward County in response to what they considered security lapses. “And basically it looked, more or less, like a cover-up, because they weren’t forthcoming about how they handled the situation.”
Superintendent Robert Runcie stresses that the school district has made no attempt to conceal information except when lawyers said it could not be released.
“That can’t be characterized — and should not be characterized — as the district doesn’t want to provide more information,” he said. “We work to be as transparent as possible. … We have nothing to hide.”
“There’s no conversation anywhere in this district about withholding any information that we can readily provide. I haven’t had those conversations. I haven’t heard about them.”
Runcie has professed openness from the beginning, but reporters and families of dead children have been denied information time and again.
In May, three months after the shooting, Runcie said: “Look, we want to be as transparent and as clear as possible. … It’s the only way that we’re going to get better as a school district, as a society, to make sure that we can put things in place so that these types of tragedies don’t happen again.”
In March, he said, “We cannot undo the heartbreak this attack has caused in the community, but we can try to understand the conditions that led to such acts in hopes of avoiding them in the future.”
That statement came as he announced what he called an “independent, comprehensive assessment” that would be done with “transparency and a sense of urgency.”
The review fell short of what he described.
Without taking bids or interviewing consultants, the district let its outside law firm hire Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee, a contractor that had worked for Broward schools before and knew school board attorney Barbara Myrick professionally.
CEN’s contract, for $60,000, did not demand the thorough and transparent review that Runcie promised. Rather, it directed the consultant to analyze Cruz’s school records, interview educators and keep the details secret. The contract required the consultant to “further assist the client in ongoing litigation matters.”
CEN spent several months analyzing one issue: whether Broward schools satisfied the law in the education of Nikolas Cruz, a one-time special education student, or whether “areas of concern” should be addressed. The review made no attempt to assess whether the district adequately protected students or failed to act on Cruz’s often-spoken plans for violence. Though Runcie said other agencies would be interviewed, none were.
The report, released in August after a court battle, concluded that the district generally treated Cruz properly. Exactly how, the public could not tell.
With a judge’s approval, the district obscured references to Cruz — nearly two-thirds of the text — to protect his privacy under law. Only when the Sun Sentinel obtained and published an uncensored copy did the truth come out: Cruz was deeply troubled; the district improperly withdrew support he needed; he asked for additional services; and the district bungled his request, leaving him spinning without help.
What the report didn’t say
Startling as those details were, they pale in light of new information obtained by the Sun Sentinel, none of it included in the consultant’s report or shared publicly by the school district.
The district was well aware that Cruz, for years, was unstable and possibly murderous:
— “I’m a bad kid. I want to kill,” Cruz, now 20 years old, ominously told a teacher in middle school.
— “I strongly feel that Nikolas is a danger to the students and faculty at this school,” Cruz’s eighth-grade language arts teacher wrote in a behavioral evaluation. “I do not feel that he understands the difference between his violent video games and reality.”
— In middle school, he “stated he felt nervous about one day going to jail and wondered what would happen to him if he did something bad.”
— Cruz told one teacher in October 2013 — 4 1/2 years before his Parkland rampage — that “I would rather be on the street killing animals and setting fires.”
— The same year, his eighth-grade class was discussing the Civil War in America. He “became fixated on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” a teacher noted. “What did it sound like when Lincoln was shot?” he asked. “Did it go pop, pop, pop really fast? Was there blood everywhere?”
— At Westglades Middle School, at the beginning of eighth grade, one girl’s mother called to have her transferred out of Cruz’s class because she was concerned for her child’s safety. The mother called Cruz a “menace to society,” according to a psychosocial assessment.
In short, the school district’s own records reveal Nikolas Cruz to be a tortured teen liable to explode at any time. Yet the analysis the district commissioned to help the community “understand,” as Runcie promised, makes no mention of those episodes.
Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was murdered at Stoneman Douglas, was angered that the report all but absolved the school district of responsibility.
“I have absolutely no trust that the district has any interest in policing itself,” Petty said.
Fighting public access
The school district began to lock down information right after the shooting, declaring that all Stoneman Douglas records were secret, even those the public had a legal right to see.
“At this time, any records pertaining to Stoneman Douglas High will not be released,” the district’s risk management department said in an email to reporters in February.
Even employees were subject to restraints. Some received letters of reprimand — not for mishandling Cruz, but for accessing his private records after the shooting.
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Officials refused at times to respond to even simple questions from reporters, telling them to wait for the consultant’s report:
— In mid-March, spokeswoman Nadine Drew declined to explain why Cruz was banned from carrying a backpack at school, information that had already been revealed publicly.
— Later that month, Runcie cited the report in declining to confirm that Cruz participated in the JROTC military program, a fact that was widely known.
— In May, Runcie said the district would “wait until we have the facts” in the report before talking in detail about Cruz’s involvement in PROMISE, a program that gives students a second chance after disciplinary problems.
Additionally, the school district refused in October to release a presentation by internal security expert Al Butler because it supposedly contained security secrets, but then the state commission released it the next month.
At one point, the district said it would cost $2,600 for reporters to see copies of letters that teachers and staff sent to School Board members after the shooting. The district said it would charge $2,700 for Principal Ty Thompson’s emails related to Cruz, the tragedy and security.
Journalists obtained some of the letters months later after negotiating a lower price. Other emails were released only after the parents of dead students sued the school district, saying they had been unable to obtain public records.
The Sun Sentinel has petitioned to join that suit, one of several cases that have led the district into court over secrecy.
Just two weeks after the attack, news companies sued the district to obtain surveillance video from outside Stoneman Douglas so the public could evaluate the response of police officers. The school district argued that the footage would give away security secrets. An appellate judge rejected that argument, calling the video “something that the parents of students should be able to evaluate to participate in future decisions concerning the safety of their children.”
The school district was back in court after its consultant’s report was completed. After first refusing to release the report, school lawyers suddenly sought a judge’s permission to do so, but only with vast sections blacked out to hide Cruz’s information.
Although the school district says the court ordered the alterations, it was the district that suggested which portions to conceal after acknowledging that much of the information was private. Cruz’s lawyers objected to the release of any information at all.
When the Sun Sentinel published an uncensored version, the school district swiftly asked a judge to hold two reporters in contempt, which could result in their jailing.
School officials maintain that they did not attempt to sanction reporters, only to inform the court that the full report had been published. Yet their petition asked the judge to “initiate contempt proceedings … and impose proper sanctions as deemed appropriate.”
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has not ruled on the request three months later.
Precisely how much the school district has spent on legal battles is unclear. The district has failed to release its legal bills despite requests from reporters over the past month.
Backers in business
Aside from legal issues, the school system has considerable reason to be concerned about its reputation, finances and stability.
It is the sixth-largest school system in the country, with more than 270,000 students and a budget of more than $4 billion. Broward County’s largest public sector employer, its leadership wields tremendous power and influence, and the community’s top businesspeople have been among Runcie’s staunchest supporters.
“The business community has confidence in Bob Runcie 100 percent,” said Keith Koenig, president of City Furniture and chairman of the Broward Workshop, a nonprofit organization made up of the county’s major corporations, including school district vendors and contractors
Koenig credits Runcie with raising graduation rates, scaling down inefficiency, improving productivity, winning an $800 million bond issue in 2014, and passing a property tax increase this past August for teacher raises and school security — a campaign waged as questions about Parkland went unanswered.
Koenig said Runcie “has attorneys telling him what he can and can’t do legally,” which explains, Koenig said, any hesitance to release information.
School districts nationally have taken similar steps to protect information during crises, experts say.
In Madison, Ala., one ninth-grader fatally shot another in a hallway at Discovery Middle School in February 2010. Although students were texting the shooter’s name to one another, the school district could not confirm it because he was a minor, said communications consultant Barbara Nash, who was hired to help with public relations.
“There are so many things that school officials are not allowed to tell anybody, the parents, anybody,” Nash said. “I wanted to. We wanted to. But we couldn’t. It would have been against the law to say so. It’s ridiculous.”
Mellissa Braham, associate director of the National School Public Relations Association, said: “Sometimes you might think that it seems as if the district is trying to hide something, when it might actually be that they’re trying to be thoughtful about the process or trying to provide a reasonable accommodation of the laws. And not get themselves in additional trouble.”
Even then, she said, most districts would do their own internal reviews to see what mistakes were made.
Broward schools never did. It was five months after the shooting that the school district announced it would launch a thorough investigation into school security and other issues that the consultant CEN was not considering. By then, the state commission was investigating the shooting and asked the district to avoid another review, in order to not interfere with the commission’s work.
Elected School Board members have largely fallen into line on secrecy, claiming they have no information or citing litigation and student privacy as reasons not to answer questions.
Longtime board member Robin Bartleman said she doesn’t feel comfortable discussing whether mistakes were made with Cruz’s schooling, until investigations are complete.
“I don’t have all the info, and I don’t want to make statements that are erroneous,” she said.
School Board member Nora Rupert, who chaired the board for most of 2018, also was cautious.
“As a mom, I would love to sit and talk with anybody who wants to about this,” she said, “but litigation puts you in a very funky place.”
Rupert said she was unaware that the district’s law firm, Haliczer, Pettis and Schwamm, hired the consultant CEN as part of its legal defense.
“I as a board member was not told anything about that, and I’m a little surprised,” she said.
David Frankel, one of Cruz’s attorneys, went further, calling the report a “whitewash” that underplayed or omitted evidence of Cruz’s psychological problems in order to help the school district evade responsibility.
“To say it’s independent is completely misleading,” Frankel said in court.
Christy Noe, president and CEO of CEN, defends the report as “not a whitewash at all.”
The report, in part, explored why Cruz was transferred to Stoneman Douglas from Cross Creek School in Pompano Beach, a school that gives emotionally and behaviorally disabled students the extra support they need. Cruz’s behavior deteriorated quickly at Stoneman Douglas and he was forced to withdraw, but the report concluded that the school district did nothing wrong by sending him there.
If people understood the laws related to educating a special needs child, Noe said, they’d understand that Cruz wasn’t meant to stay in the sheltered environment of a special school forever. Even with his history of aggression and threats to kill people, she said she stands by her report’s conclusion that he had improved enough to be sent to a regular school.
Cruz was just one of about 1,000 students in Broward public schools with emotional and behavioral disabilities, Noe said.
“If you were to review the full educational records of those students, you would find many, many instances in which they said or wrote disturbing or threatening statements,” Noe said in an email, adding that “unfortunately, how we see things in hindsight is often very different than what we perceive in the moment.”
Still, plenty of people knew that Cruz was bent on violence, but their concerns appear nowhere in the consultant’s report.
“Nikolas continues to struggle with displaying appropriate behaviors,” a guidance counselor at Stoneman Douglas wrote. “The student was observed writing ‘KILL’ on a paper.”
In February 2016, just weeks after Cruz started full time at Stoneman Douglas, a neighbor reported to the sheriff’s office how unhinged he was. Cruz posted online that he planned to “shoot up a school,” the neighbor said.
The statement does not appear in the consultant’s report; it is not included in Cruz’s school files. Instead, the report portrayed the volatile Cruz as a success story at the time. He was “experiencing positive academic progress with only minor behavioral challenges,” the report said.
No help for Cruz
At Stoneman Douglas, Cruz disappeared on a giant campus with 3,300 students and no structure for emotionally troubled students like him.
Worse, the school district sent him there without a formal plan for governing his behavior — a decision the school district’s consultant found understandable.
A behavioral intervention plan would have outlined steps to take if Cruz’s behavior impeded his learning or that of others.
Sending him to Stoneman Douglas without a behavioral plan was a grave mistake, said Dottie Provenzano, a retired special education coordinator for Broward schools.
Although the consultant did not criticize the district, the report did recommend that a behavioral intervention plan “should be considered” for students with emotional or behavioral problems who move from special education to a traditional school setting.
Some in the community wonder whether Cruz’s problems at Stoneman Douglas led him to target the school later.
The school district’s actions were “just total negligence — serious, not minor,” said Provenzano, the former special education coordinator. “The way I look at it, we don’t have dead children if the school district had done what they needed to do.”
The district has tried to dispel that perception.
Public Information Officer Tracy Clark has repeatedly distributed “talking points,” or suggested comments, for administrators and school board members to make publicly, according to emails obtained by the Sun Sentinel.
On Feb. 23, she suggested phrases for Rupert to use at a news conference, including the statement: “Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School victims, families, employees and community.”
On March 6, she issued this suggestion for School Board members: “Our ability to move forward in the aftermath of this horrific attack depends on the steps we take now to understand the conditions that may have led to this tragedy.”
Similarly, the district attempted to mitigate any public outcry about its consultant’s report. A news release proclaimed, “This report verifies that the district’s systems are appropriate and are in place.” Clark then sent out talking points for board members, who were advised to say, “I have not yet seen the report.” Or: “It seems clear that the review was thorough.” And: “We must never forget that Nikolas Cruz is responsible for this tragedy.”
Efforts to control information began only days after the shooting. The school district instructed its employees to direct all media inquiries to the public information office, limiting interviews with staff.
Principal Thompson still has not talked to reporters nine months after the shooting.
In an email Feb. 22, Runcie told Rupert, then the School Board chairwoman, that the district had hired a crisis management firm and assembled a legal team that included advisers experienced with other mass shootings.
“Their advice is that the fewer people we have talking to the media the better off we will be,” Runcie wrote in an internal email.
In total, the school district paid crisis management consultants more than $185,000 to respond to an onslaught of media requests and manage its message to the public, according to a district spokeswoman.
Disaster Management International Inc., of Little Rock, Ark., founded by a former coroner, took in more than half of the total — $109,424 for 11 days of work immediately after the shooting. The company had no written contract.
In addition, Sara Brady, a Central Florida public relations professional, charged the district $300 an hour — for a total of nearly $75,000 — to spread a positive message in the community and generate support among parents, businesses and students.
Her contract required her to “ensure facts are moved forward.” She assisted for about four months.
In November, the district agreed to hire a new head spokeswoman, a member of the Broward Workshop. Kathy Koch, who owns Ambit advertising and public relations, will make $165,000 a year.
The decision to hire outsiders to manage communications at taxpayer expense might seem inappropriate, but it can be a responsible move, experts say. Few businesses or organizations are prepared to handle the overwhelming demands around the clock in an age when social media provides instant global coverage — and outrage.
The general public cannot fathom the number of calls and emails that come in — by the minute — requesting interviews, records, photographs and videos, said Mark Malcolm, president and founder of Disaster Management International, the Arkansas firm that assisted the Broward schools.
“That’s why people reach out to us when they have an incident like this and ask for help. … They don’t have the staff to meet those needs,” he said.
But professionals sometimes disagree about how to handle a crisis. Many preach openness and honesty to maintain credibility and reassure the public. Brady’s message to clients is: “Stop Talking,” which also is the title of a podcast she broadcasts marketing her business.
A former police reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, Brady advised the owner of the Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were shot to death in 2016.
“Your goal is to survive,” Brady told a national conference of school public relations executives in July in California, as she described the “unimaginable stress,” political pressures and press demands in a PR maelstrom like the Parkland shooting.
Clark, the Broward school district’s public information officer, was in the room during the presentation.
By “survival,” Brady said, she meant that in the long term after a crisis, people retain their jobs and the public trust in the organization is salvaged.
In a videotape of the conference workshop, Brady tells public relations staff that they don’t have to answer all questions and suggests that school staff force reporters to submit questions by noon or “we’re not going to be able to answer.” She urges officials to weave in the school district’s key messages and themes.
Brady expressed disdain for the press, telling conference participants that journalists reporting on the Stoneman Douglas tragedy were “asking wasteful questions” and simply seeking awards.
She explained how the Broward school district refused reporters access to graduation ceremonies at Stoneman Douglas, months after the shooting, at the behest of families. She then jokingly mocked the locked-out reporters as crybabies.
Brady declined to comment for this story. “I don’t discuss my clients,” she said.
Asked whether she advised the school district to “stop talking,” she said, “No, I did not.”
©2018 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)