In Tense Meeting, Broward School Board Rejects Arming Teachers, Defends Shooting Response

Apr 11, 2018
Originally published on April 11, 2018 4:19 pm

The Broward School Board unanimously voted Tuesday to reject the state’s new program to arm school staff in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shootings.

The decision, which the board will outline in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature, means Broward Schools will forgo its portion of the $67 million allocated statewide to implement the Aaron Feis Guardian Program. The program is named after a popular coach killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at the Parkland school, which left 17 students and educators dead after a former student carried out the attack with a semiautomatic AR-15 assault-style rifle.

The board will ask the state to redirect that money so Broward schools can hire more police officers.

“To leave $67 million on the table is just a travesty,” said school board member Robin Bartleman. “We should definitely launch a campaign to persuade the governor — for those districts who don’t want to arm their employees, that they give us the money to keep our children safe in other ways, as opposed to leaving it there.”

Under a new state law passed in the weeks following the massacre, school staff members, including some with teaching duties, would be allowed to carry concealed firearms, if law enforcement officials and school boards choose to participate in the program. The program initially called for arming teachers, but opposition from teachers, parents and school administrators killed that provision.

The board’s action came during a day-long meeting that concluded with Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie and board members defending themselves against criticisms from a teacher whose son was shot during the attack, and a Parkland parent who argued the district has botched efforts to communicate with families following the tragedy. Additionally, a home-schooled Broward student, 19, produced a report blaming the district’s disciplinary policies and infrastructure spending for the shooting.

During public testimony, Lisa Olson, a teacher at Park Trails Elementary in Parkland, said her son, William, a freshman at Stoneman Douglas, was shot in both arms and still carries bullets inside his body. He witnessed the murders of three of his classmates, including one who was sitting next to him.

Olson said she was disgusted by what she characterized as a lack of communication with families who were most affected by the shooting.

“How could the district fail to contact each of the students in the classrooms where murders and injuries occurred? This borders on negligence,” she said. “Photo ops and press conferences seem to be the district’s focus, rather than focusing on those who were suffering and trying to come to terms with what was happening.”

School board members Rosalind Osgood and Abby Freedman apologized to her during the meeting, with Freedman adding she wasn’t allowed to know which students had been shot because of federal laws that protect medical information.

Nikki Pierre-Grant, a parent who has a child who graduated from Stoneman Douglas and has children in a Parkland elementary school, told the board parents are angry because they haven’t received any clear information about how the district would prevent another shooting.

“Right now, we’re just getting a whole bunch of hot air,” said Pierre-Grant, PTO president of Heron Heights Elementary in Parkland.

Kenneth Preston, the Broward high school senior, called out Runcie and board members for spending only a fraction of more than $100 million earmarked for school safety upgrades in a bond voters approved in 2014.

Preston also targeted the “PROMISE program,” which allows for students who commit non-violent misdemeanor crimes at school to avoid going to jail by entering into an educational program designed to address behavioral issues.

Preston argued that confessed shooter and troubled former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz’s behavior at school might have been punished more severely if the existing policy hadn’t set a precedent for leniency.

Runcie maintained Cruz never benefited from PROMISE and said the program is effective in ending the “school-to-prison” pipeline. He called attempts to connect the PROMISE program and the shooting “reprehensible.”

Board chair Nora Rupert described the report as “hurtful,” arguing Preston included quotes from board members that were taken out of context.

“I know we’re all hurting,” Rupert said. “I really can’t excuse people using quotes for political gain.”

Runcie and board members were adamant the PROMISE program isn’t going anywhere.

“We’re not going to dismantle a program in this district that is serving and helping kids appropriately because of news that is not fact-based,” he said.

A group of educators and community members gathered at the meeting to defend the PROMISE program, wearing T-shirts and buttons and bringing a box of small placard signs demonstrating their support. At one point, a security guard told one member of the group he was not allowed to wave his sign, which was a small paper circle attached to a wooden ice cream stick.

As for the bond approved by voters, Runcie said there have been delays in beginning some of the construction projects. But all 1,400 of them have been initiated and are on track to be completed on time, in 2021.

He said the district’s communication with parents hasn’t been perfect but noted the district has communicated through social media and robocalls. He also invited people to speak at a forum on public safety scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 18 at Plantation High School.

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