David Fleshler

David Fleshler Contact Reporter South Florida Sun Sentinel

The Broward school district’s repeated, emphatic — and it turns out, false — statements that Nikolas Cruz had not been in a controversial disciplinary program fit a pattern of an institution on the defense and under siege.

Facing significant legal and political exposure over the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the district has tried to keep information from the public and put out untrue and misleading statements, frustrating parents who say this is the time for maximum transparency.

The district is fighting in court against the release of school surveillance video. It flatly refused to issue any records regarding the shooting to the news media, in a possible violation of the state’s open-records law. Superintendent Robert Runcie has blocked critics, including parents, from his Twitter account. More than two months after the shooting, a Broward Sheriff’s detective told a state commission on school safety that he was still waiting for the district to provide all of Cruz’s disciplinary records.

The worst came last week, when Runcie acknowledged that his forceful denials that Cruz had been involved in the Promise program, which is intended to provide an alternative to the arrest of students for minor offenses, were wrong.

“It would appear that the district is more interested in protecting their programs than they are the students and teachers in our schools,” said Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was killed by Cruz during his rampage through the school. “As a father, I would ask the district to please be completely transparent so we can make sure this doesn’t happen to any other children in any other schools in Florida.”

School district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said the district has provided accurate information to investigators, the press and the public as fast as possible and “any suggestion that the district is not being forthcoming is either based on a misunderstanding or misinformation.”

“The district continues to focus on responding in a timely and accurate manner to the unprecedented number of public records requests, media requests and subpoenas related to the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” she said in an email. “In addition, we have coordinated numerous interviews with employees as part of the various ongoing investigations. Both the State Attorney’s Office, through the Broward Sheriff’s Office, and the Public Defender’s Office have been given complete copies of the records related to Nikolas Cruz that have been gathered to date.”

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting, said he was surprised to learn that the district still has not provided all of Cruz’s records to investigators. At a meeting of the state commission set up after the shooting to improve school safety, Pollack asked a Broward Sheriff’s detective whether all of the records had been provided.

“I believe that some of the items we are seeking to get from the school board, we have received some,” Detective Zachary Scott said. “But I do not believe we’ve received everything yet.”

“It caught us all off guard,” Pollack said in an interview this week. “We didn’t believe it. It’s past two months now already. A lot of the people on the committee couldn’t believe it.”

From the school district, Pollack said, “There’s no honesty at all.”

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright declined to say whether the school district has supplied the records and whether it is cooperating with the investigation, saying only, “Our detectives continue to work with several agencies as they progress with the investigation.”

School district spokeswoman Clark said the district provided investigators with all of the records it could find so far.

Although the Broward Sheriff’s Office has not produced every record requested by the news media, the agency has released dozens of documents, including reports of incidents at Cruz’s home and documents on its own flawed response.

But the school district has issued a blanket refusal to release any documents, including emails about the shooting among the district’s leadership and formal notices of intent to sue by victims and their families, despite Florida’s broad public records law.

“At this time, any records pertaining to Stoneman Douglas High will not be released pursuant to 768.28(16)(b) and 119.071(2)(c),” states a letter sent repeatedly to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, emphasizing the word “any.”

The exemptions to the state open records law cited by the district concern claims or lawsuits involving the district and active criminal investigations.

Barbara Petersen, a lawyer who is president of the First Amendment Foundation, which advocates the robust application of Florida’s open-records laws, said the district was misapplying both exemptions. The claims exemption must be construed narrowly to exclude only documents directly relevant to the claims. And the criminal investigation exemption applies only to law enforcement agencies and the documents they produce in the course of an investigation.

“It does not apply to a school board,” she said. “What a lot of agencies will do is — say you’ll make the request for his disciplinary records — and the school board will say, we gave that to FDLE, it’s exempt under the active criminal investigation exemption. No, it’s not. The active criminal investigation exemption first applies only to law enforcement and second applies only to records created in the scope of that investigation. It does not apply to any record that (otherwise) would be subject to disclosure.”

More broadly, she said the Stoneman Douglas tragedy is a perfect example of a time when government agencies need to be as open as possible.

“It’s triggered a fundamental debate, not just about gun safety and gun control, but the schools and how the schools are dealing with these troubled children,” she said. “And this school board has been difficult to deal with, to say the least, they’ve distorted the facts, if not outright lied, and their credibility is at stake.”

The school district, joined by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, tried to stop the release to the media of surveillance video from the school. The district’s lawyers argued in court that the videos would threaten school security by revealing blind spots in the surveillance system.

The district partially dropped its opposition after all sides agreed to an initial release of videos that showed the inaction of a Broward sheriff’s deputy who resigned after the incident. And the district lost in court when Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey R. Levenson ordered the release of more videos, saying any “potential harm” to the school’s security system was “outweighed by the strong public interest in disclosure.” The school district, along with the state attorney’s office, is appealing.

Runcie’s Twitter account contains fewer critics of the district, now that he’s blocked several of them.

“He blocked me,” tweeted Diana Alvarez, whose son is a 10-grader in the Broward system and who had served as an elementary school PTA president. “NOT good to block a parent in your district.”

Among others shut out of Runcie’s account was Tim Sternberg, a former district administrator who had run the Promise program before resigning a year ago. Now a critic of how the district runs the program, he was blocked last month.

“What is your superintendent afraid of?” he tweeted to school board members, forwarding the statement “@RobertwRuncie blocked you.” “Is he nervous about the truth?”

Runcie said he won’t tolerate “profanity, hate speech or false information” on his Twitter account.

“Negative commentary from constituents is part of a public official’s job,” he said in a statement emailed to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “However, the heightened political climate our community is currently experiencing has inspired some individuals to cross a threshold in terms of vitriol.”

Questions about the Promise program had been a source of frustration for district officials, as well as students and parents. Many felt that the program had been unfairly seized upon as a distraction by conservative opponents of gun control, who preferred to focus on blundering by the district and the sheriff’s office.

At a Feb. 28 news conference, Runcie insisted Cruz had no connection to the program. “This particular individual was never a participant in the Promise program. He wasn’t eligible for it,” Runcie said. “There’s no connection between Cruz and the district’s Promise program.” In a March 24 column in the Sun Sentinel, Runcie called the reports of a Promise connection to Cruz “fake news,” lumping them with the false charges that Stoneman Douglas survivors were “crisis actors.”

Later the standard answer developed a nuance, with Runcie claiming Cruz had not been in the program “while in high school.”

“Once he said that comment, I knew the guy was lying and being deceitful,” Pollack said. “Once he shaded it that way, I knew it.”

County Commissioner Michael Udine, a former mayor of Parkland, said the hedged responses from the district are a disservice to the community.

“People want the whole truth, they want the whole truth quickly and they want the complete truth out in the open,” he said. “Everything’s coming out at some point. The half-answers that have come out — whether he was in the Promise program at one time or not completely in the program — is not the right way to handle it. Full and complete transparency is what’s called for here.”