Broward Students, Parents Allege Superintendent, School Board Misconduct Undermined Student Safety

Runcie, Nikolas Cruz split
AP/Getty Images

Research into discrepancies in the use of school safety funding as well as the district’s plan to reduce arrests and expulsions for minority students has led parents and survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School shooting to allege the school district superintendent and school board engaged in misconduct that undermined student safety at the school.

Kenneth Preston, a 19-year-old student of the school district, spoke at the Broward County School Board Operational meeting Tuesday evening. His plan was to address his research into the district’s school safety funding and its programs – known as PROMISE and the Behavior Intervention Program – that has led him and a group of parents and student survivors of the shooting to call for an independent investigation into the actions of Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie and the Broward County school board.

Though Preston originally planned to deliver the results of his research at the school board meeting, he instead explained how some members of the board and Runcie “have tried every means possible to subvert our message.”

Preston said:

For weeks, we have had additional speakers scheduled. Just an hour ago, I received word that over seven additional speakers would be cut, and that my time would be cut in half from the original six minutes … A board and superintendent who insists on the commitment to transparency have decided to deny the voices of survivors and families of victims who intended to speak tonight.

That is no surprise after the fiasco I was involved in yesterday, though. Yesterday it was requested that I meet with the superintendent and families of victims to discuss my report. I was denied the right to have an attorney present. I was refused the opportunity to record the meeting, and I was told this was because the superintendent wouldn’t have any representation of his own.

When I arrived at the meeting was stacked with ten district officials in addition to the superintendent. We spoke for a total of two hours. You can call me a skeptic, but I have a hard time believing that a superintendent and ten district officials who represent 327 schools, 15,000 teachers, and 270,000 students had the time to meet with a 19-year-old for two hours in a meeting if they didn’t believe I was holding onto something crucial. It makes me wonder how committed to transparency and truth you are when I was denied the right to have an attorney present as well as the opportunity to record the meeting while the superintendent was allowed to bring ten district officials who work for him and attempt to reeducate me.

Something doesn’t smell quite right in Broward, and this school district is the epicenter.

The parents and students assert Runcie and members of the school board failed to keep MSD students safe as a result of mismanagement of funds allocated for school safety and disciplinary programs that were more concerned with reducing numbers of minority arrests than student safety.

Preston’s research included interviews with Broward County officials. Among his conclusions is that $104,325,821 appropriated for school safety as part of the Broward Schools 2014 Bond Appropriation has been mismanaged.

Additionally, his research focuses on the PROMISE and Behavior Intervention Programs that Runcie claims have significantly reduced the “school-to-prison pipeline” for minority students. The PROMISE program was likely one of the “disparate impact” programs chosen by the Obama administration to serve as a model for its Dear Colleague letter, a directive that coerced schools into reducing reports of misbehavior by minority students and, as a result, avoid federal investigations and the withdrawal of federal funding.

Though accused school shooter Nikolas Cruz has a long history of assaultive and violent behaviors, he was never expelled from the school system or referred to law enforcement for arrest, a situation that facilitated his ability to obtain a firearm.

In his research document, Preston observes the Broward County school board had been investigated by a Grand Jury for corruption three times since 1997.

“In 2011, the Grand Jury came back with a ruling that found extreme money mismanagement and corruption by school board officials,” Preston writes. “They found that the culture of corruption in the School Board ran so deep that even replacing the Board members wouldn’t help, so they suggested the Broward School board be dissolved entirely.”

“Aside from that, they listed 21 recommendations for the Broward School Board including allowing the district to vote on the Superintendent, preventing board members from selecting of contractors, and creating an independent office of IG to monitor the board,” his document continues. “The current school board has ignored almost all of those measures.”

As Substance News reported in 2011, the Broward school board moved ahead to select Runcie, who had worked for Obama-era education secretary Arne Duncan when Duncan led Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Runcie, however, had been demoted from his position at CPS for undisclosed reasons just three months prior to becoming Broward’s superintendent.

Preston notes Runcie’s actions since taking the helm of the school district have been “less than transparent.”

He writes:

Almost immediately, he proposed cutting the number of publicly accessible school boardmeetings in half. The bulk of the public’s frustration with Runcie’s transparency however, has to do with the allocation and spending of funds meant for Broward Public Schools. In recent weeks, Superintendent Runcie has gone on a media crusade insisting that the solution to school safety concerns is more money. In a letter to Governor Scott, Runcie criticized the increased safety funding as “significantly inadequate.” What Superintendent Runcie fails to mention however, is that he’s had access to nearly $100,000,000 designated specifically for school safety for years as part of a 2014 Bond Appropriation.

Preston notes that of the $104,325,821 designated for school safety, only $5,584,512 – about 5.3 percent – has been spent since its appropriation.

“Superintendent Runcie called an article referencing this report ‘fake news’ and recommended anyone interested in facts should look to Florida TaxWatch, an independent organization tasked with overseeing the distribution of the money,” Preston writes. “I reached out to Florida TaxWatch, and Vice President of Research Robert Nave has since verified our numbers.”

As the Sun Sentinel reported in February 2017, Florida TaxWatch criticized Runcie and the school board for their lack of transparency regarding an $800 million bond appropriation, saying, “The public has every right to know which school projects are delayed and the reasons for the delay, as well as which school projects are over-budget.”

In 2011, Obama Education Secretary Duncan and former Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, to end the disproportionate number of minority student arrests.

School districts applying for a federal “Race to the Top” (RTTT) grant – inserted in Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill to launch the Common Core State Standards – were required to address disproportionate minority arrests and disciplinary actions. Broward County had already received $37.4 million from RTTT but had to promise the Obama administration in 2013 it would re-evaluate its disciplinary system in order to reduce minority arrests, suspensions, and expulsions.

Subsequently, Runcie, the school board, and Sheriff Scott Israel’s office created the PROMISE program, which lists 13 behaviors – including assaults, fighting, and threats – that, previously, would have been referred to law enforcement, but are now handled by school administrators.

The following year, the school district’s arrest rate dropped 78 percent.

As Breitbart News reported, Broward Sheriff’s Union President Jeff Bell told Fox News host Laura Ingraham the school board is partly to blame for implementation of the PROMISE program and failing to provide adequate funding for school safety:

For years they know that the schools have been soft targets, and they claim that they want to have better police presence inside the schools, and they want tougher security, but, yet, they do not want to cough up the money to pay for that better security and fortify their schools and have better designs. They don’t want that. And, then when they are fortunate to have a school resource officer deputy on scene, and armed police presence, a lot of the liberal-thinking principals on campus there, they don’t want the police officers making arrests on campus, and they don’t want the drugs to be found on campus, and they don’t want the warrants to be served on campus because it looks like there’s bad stats at the school.

So, I place a lot of blame on the school board with that and some of the programs that they’ve initiated with the state attorney and the sheriff’s office in years past. For example, the PROMISE program … the problem is when that program started, we took all discretion away from the law enforcement officers to effect an arrest if we choose to.

In 2014, Runcie also directed the school district to begin funneling incarcerated students back into classrooms via initiatives such as the Behavior Intervention Program.

As RealClearInvestigations reported, the program is intended for “students who exhibit severe, unmanageable behavior that cannot be adequately controlled in a traditional school setting.”

“Through the structures provided in this program, it is expected that students will acquire the necessary skills to enable them to optimally function in the traditional school setting when they return,” the program’s handbook states.

Students referred to the program include those “returning from residential Juvenile Justice Programs,” including students “convicted of a serious crime such as: rape, murder, attempted murder, sexual battery or firearm related,” and those whose behavior off campus would qualify them for expulsion.

“[T]he Superintendent failed to take the appropriate security precautions,” Preston concludes. “He has not at any point after the tragedy at MSD acknowledged the mismanagement of school safety funds, indicated any sort of intention to reform the way the Board functions, or assumed any responsibility for the systematic failures that occurred in failing to properly deal with Nikolas Cruz.”

“The actions and evidence described warrant an independent investigation into the conduct of the Board and Superintendent,” he asserts. “In addition to this, the current discipline matrix and reform programs need be to altered to ensure that there is no tolerance for violent crimes in Broward County Schools.”

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