School Safety Panel Blasts Broward Schools Chief
Amid a growing backlash against charter schools without a long-term plan to have armed guards onsite, a state commission on Thursday pressured Broward County Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie to shut down charters that have failed to meet the state mandate.
But Runcie pushed back, telling members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that he has to take policies and procedures into consideration prior to shuttering schools.
“I don’t have the authority to revoke a charter because a school does not have a long-term sustainable plan. If there’s non-compliance, we will sanction,” Runcie told the panel during a meeting Thursday in Sunrise.
The commissioners have been frustrated at schools’ failure to comply with safety mandates that have been the law for more than a year.
But some of their sharpest criticism has been directed at Runcie for perceived lapses leading up to and following last year’s mass shooting at a Broward County high school, in which 17 students and faculty were killed and another 17 people were injured.
Weeks after the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, lawmakers passed a sweeping school-safety package. Additional requirements were passed during this year's legislative session that ended in May.
Twenty-nine of the 89 charter schools in Runcie’s district do not have long-term plans to have a full-time armed security guard. Under the 2018 law, all public schools, including charter schools, are required to have a trained, armed guard or a law enforcement officer on campus at all times.
Runcie told commissioners that schools with a temporary plan for armed security are “technically” in compliance with the law.
“I can’t say they are out of compliance and then I show up at their doorstep and there is a school resource officer there,” Runcie said.
But the temporary plans for some of the schools may no longer exist after Friday, according to Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony. On Wednesday, Tony told the commission he had temporarily assigned officers to 13 charter schools before the new school year began this week. The sheriff said he planned to start removing the temporary school safety officers on Friday.
Runcie said Thursday morning that he has already recommended closing one charter school that failed to have armed security on the first day of school this week.
But Polk Sheriff Grady Judd, who has been one of Runcie’s harshest detractors, urged the schools chief to do more.
Judd told Runcie he should revoke all of the charters of the 29 schools that lack a long-term plan, saying such an act would be seen as an “exercise of seriousness” and serve as a warning to non-compliant schools.
But Runcie warned that the schools would likely appeal their contract revocation to the Florida Department of Education, again stressing that there were policies and procedures he needed to take into consideration.
“Let them appeal to the DOE,” Judd said. “I would encourage them to do so. But the point is that it is clear to everyone in this commission that the best they’ve done is to play games before school starts.”
Throughout Runcie’s three-hour appearance Thursday, panelists accused Broward County leaders of lacking a sense of urgency to bring schools into compliance.
Commissioner Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for the judicial circuit that includes Pinellas and Pasco counties, said the power to remove charters rests on local officials.
Bartlett scolded Runcie for allowing charter schools to “keep playing games.”
“We are just asking that you do something about it,” Barlett said. “We all look stupid because we are not taking action and those children are in danger.”
Some commissioners also urged Runcie to publicly name the non-compliant schools, a move they have been pushing since the panel learned in June that nearly 200 schools in Florida did not have safety officers onsite at all times.
But the superintendent refused to publicly identify the schools, citing safety concerns.
Judd bristled, accusing Runcie of “pushing off” his responsibility to keep students safe. Runcie said he would tell the commissioners the name of the school privately.
“I will call that charter out and you will see what true leadership is,” Judd snapped.
Ryan Petty, a commissioner whose daughter Alaina was one of the Parkland shooting victims, was emotional when he told Runcie that the school superintendent’s role is to make sure students and faculty come back home safely when they go to school every day.
“I haven’t seen the will or the sense of urgency in Broward County to learn the lessons of what happened on Feb. 14 to protect our most vulnerable, our students and our teachers,” Petty said, choking back tears.
At the end of the meeting, Tony Montalto, whose daughter, Gina, also was killed in the Parkland massacre, thanked the commission for putting Runcie under the spotlight.
“Today, we saw Mr. Runcie continue his ineffective leadership of the Broward County school district,” Montalto said. “I can tell you the support for the victims’ families has been minimal at best and I can assure you this kind of performance would not cut it in the private sector."