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Superintendent Runcie Describes How He Handled the Aftermath of the Parkland Shooting

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The after effects of a school shooting involve more than the recovery of students and the healing of a community, especially when that shooting is of the scale to draw the attention of international news media, Broward County, Fla., Superintendent Robert Runcie said in a panel discussion here Thursday.

In clawing their way back to a new normal, school and district leaders must also deal with the logistical and political concerns and confront the overwhelming task of communicating, not only with the local community, but with a curious and concerned world, he said. And that process starts the moment leaders learn a gun has been fired in one of their buildings.

Runcie learned this firsthand after 17 students and staff members were killed Feb. 14 at  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in the Broward County community of Parkland, starting anew combative debates about school safety and gun laws and sparking a new youth political movement.

But as the national audience became focused on those larger stories, the district has had to face challenges Runcie says no one can be totally prepared for: how to reunite families immediately after the shooting, how to coordinate with law enforcement in investigation and response, how to handle the overwhelming public demand for infomation, how to respond to the anger and hurt of a grieving community, and how to navigate its role as the focus of a massive political conversation.

"You have to be proximate and visible in these kinds of events. You can't run away from the media," Runcie told fellow education leaders gathered at a conference held by the Council of the Great City Schools. "There's a media frenzy, and you have to fill that with as much information as you have when you have it."

The Council of the Great City Schools is a coalition of 70 urban school districts that trade ideas and share strategies. Runcie spoke as part of a panel that addressed responding to school crises.

The day of the Parkland shooting

On the day of the shooting, Runcie was at another high school in the district, presenting a teacher of the year with the keys to a Toyota Camry. Earlier in the day, he'd visited some other schools to chat with students and recognize volunteers.

As he stepped out of the event, he recieved a text message from his chief of staff: There were reports of a shooting at Stoneman Douglas. District leaders regularly receive word of possible criminal activity around schools or threats that are later determined to be unfounded, but it didn't take long to learn this one was real.

The team immediately headed for Parkland.

Runcie got on the phone with Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who described "the most horrific scene he'd seen in his entire life." Law enforcement still didn't have a count of fatalities but, at that point, Israel thought it might be more than 20.

In Parkland, the district team was met with swarms of emergency vehicles from as far away as Miami surrounding the school and limiting access to nearby roads. They immediately worked to coordinate information for families, what little information they had at that point, and to set up a place for them to reunite with their children in a nearby hotel.

It wasn't until 9 p.m., more than six hours after the shootings, that officials had a confirmed count of the dead and injured. And it wasn't until 3 a.m. that they had cleared out the reunion point to go home for the night. They would face a crush of international media the next day. Camera crews had already started trickling in that afternoon.

"Folks are, at that point, running on adrenaline," Runcie said. "And it had turned into a massive, international media event. It really became what I consider a 9/11 type moment for us in public education because of some of the ripple effects that came out of it."

There's no way for communications teams to be completely prepared for an emergency event, especially a mass shooting, said Tracy Clark, the chief information officer of Broward County schools. Districts should incorporate communications into their emergency response plans, she said, and first responders need to coordinate with media relations staff to quickly release accurate information in an environment where rumors spread quickly.

Misinformation spread on social media the night of the attack, students quickly shared photos and videos from inside their classrooms, and some staff even tried to access and leak the gunman's educational records.

"It's easy to criticize that work but there's no way any district in this country is staffed and organized to support a crisis of this magnitude," Runcie said.

Broward leaders consulted with other districts about how they had responded to various crises, and some other school systems even loaned them communications personnel to handle the media calls. Clark said she still receives at least one media request a day about the shooting, and she still cries at least daily as she thinks about what occurred.

"I don't know at what point you're healed. I don't know at what point you're recovered. I know I probably cry everyday, and have from the moment we got the information," Clark said. "The shooter has not even gone on trial yet. I can't imagine how that's going to be for our community."

Politics swirl

The shooting, combined with previous mass shootings, moved Runcie to speak out about what he sees as a need for "common sense gun laws" through statements at press conferences as early as the morning after the attack.

Under pressure from Parkland students and victims' families, the Florida legislature passed a comprehensive school safety bill less than a month after the shooting. That bill called for increased school security and mental health services, and it included new gun restrictions like a waiting period for firearms purchases, raising the minimum age for rifle sales, and a provision that allows law enforcement to restrict a person's access to guns if he or she is deemed a threat.

Runcie has also supported Parkland students who've pushed for new gun laws.

"As a leader, you can't sit there and not take a position about what you believe on gun violence," he said. "And when you do that, you might as well say hello to the NRA. They are going to show up and criticize everything you do, to discredit you and the district."

NRA leaders have criticized Runcie, Israel, and other local leaders, claiming they didn't respond properly to concerns about the gunman during his time as a Broward County student. The gun rights organization and right-wing media outlets also criticized the district's discipline program that replaced arrests with educational programs for some student behaviors. Runcie stands by that program.

In his talk to fellow district leaders on Thursday, Runcie did not address other criticism he's received from local families, including many victims' families, who have criticized the district's response to the shooting. Among other things, those families have criticized how the district administered a bond program, some of which was targeted at improving safety measures in its buildings. Some parents have called on the school board to fire Runcie.

Those tensions were evident later Thursday evening when word spread online that the Council for the Great City Schools gave Runcie a "Crisis and Courage Award." Victims' relatives slammed the move on social media, and some called on Runcie to return the award.

The district also got in a legal tangle with the Sun-Sentinel newspaper after district officials improperly redacted information about the shooter's educational history from an investigation it had commissioned from a consultant. That allowed reporters to access the whole document, which the district had released under court order. That investigation concluded the district had mishandled the gunman's request to return to special education programs after he had opted out.

Ongoing work

Runcie did say he saw support from the greater community for the district's direction. He cited voter approval of a property tax increase for teachers' salaries and security officers in the most recent school board election as a sign of their support.

"No matter what you do, no matter how much you do to support families and the community, you will be criticized," Runcie said. "It is never going to be enough because the grief, the hurt, and the anger is just unbearable for some."

Stoneman Douglas is now home to counseling programs and dozens of therapy dogs who help students with the everyday bravery it takes to go to school while healing from trauma.

Every month brings new milestones: prom, graduation, school resuming after a summer of grief. The district has restricted media access to the building and to events to give students space and privacy, Clark said. That move has drawn pushback from some media, but officials want to protect students who are trying to get used to "a new normal," she said.

The district, like others in Florida, is also working to comply with new safety mandates, like adding an armed officer or security guard to every buliding. It has also added more security cameras and upgraded the system they feed into, Runcie said.

Some of those changes can make recovery seem difficult, he said. Under a new state mandate, for example, the district must perform 10 shooter drills a year. Combined with fire drills, that's a big loss of instructional time. And students at Stoneman Douglas, who were evacuating school for a fire alarm at the time of the shooting, have been re-traumatized by the exercises, Runcie and Clark said.

Clark compared the overwhelming task of communicating with the public with "drinking the ocean." 

"There is nothing that you can put on paper, I believe, that can prepare you," she said.  "I would encourage every [district] to at least start the conversation of 'what if.' "

Photo: Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie speaks during a news conference on Feb. 15, near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed the day before in a mass shooting. --Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS


Related reading about responding to school shootings, emergencies:

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