Confronted with the possibility of opening a meeting to the public, Broward County schools found another way Monday to keep a wrap on details about February’s mass killing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The school district decided it was better to keep School Board members out of a meeting with Parkland parents rather to allow the public in.
The meeting was scheduled to allow parents of 10th-graders to meet with Superintendent Robert Runcie and discuss their concerns about school security and leadership. A similar meeting with parents of ninth-graders took place Thursday.
School Board member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter was killed in the Feb. 14 massacre, was the only School Board member allowed to attend the meeting Monday.
Two board members attended the earlier meeting, but only one was allowed to speak, an effort by the district to keep from opening up the meeting.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel promptly sued, contending that the meetings should be open under Florida law if School Board members were attending.
School Board member Nora Rupert, who has called for Runcie to be fired, hadn’t planned to attend Monday’s meeting, but the district’s efforts to keep out School Board members and the public disturbed her.
“I am saddened that I have always pushed for open, transparent governing and this is where we all find ourselves? Not a good message to the public nor our students, who we encourage to ‘see something, say something,’” Rupert said.
“What message is this teaching them? Respect freedom of speech not only when the information is positive, but own all our decisions. The only way forward to healing is to be 100 percent transparent and put parameters in place to mitigate another tragedy.”
School Board member Robin Bartleman said she had no interest in attending a meeting where she had to stay silent.
“It would have been incredibly frustrating to sit there and not communicate with parents, and even more so in a smaller setting,” Bartleman said. “People are pouring their hearts out and you just have to sit there and look at them?”
But Board member Rosalind Osgood, a Runcie supporter, didn’t see a problem with the closed-door meetings.
“The community wanted to have conversations and directly get feedback from the superintendent,” Osgood said. “I don’t feel like I’m being shut out. I don’t think anybody is trying to shut anybody out. I think we’re trying to provide an environment where parents can get their feelings expressed.”
The school district has been under fire for months for concealing information about the shooting and the gunman, a former student. A Sun Sentinel investigation found that the district used federal privacy laws to withhold public documents and hide how it had mishandled the shooter’s education.
An estimated 200 to 250 people attended Monday’s meeting. The emotions were particularly raw for parents of 10th-graders, who were ninth-graders last year when the gunman started shooting into the freshman building. Nine of the 17 who were killed — and eight of the 17 who were wounded — were ninth-graders last year.
About 10 people asked Runcie to resign, according to people who attended the meeting.
Doug Kruse, who has two students at Stoneman Douglas, was among those seeking Runcie’s resignation.
“We don’t need an apology. That time has come and gone. We don’t need further promises of what’s going to be taken,” Kruse said. “What we really need to hear tonight that will give us some small sense of peace and some small sense of hope are three very simple words: ‘I resign immediately.’
“For us in the this community, you are the face of failure. You and your administration have failed before, during and after that horrible day. The failures were epic.”
Keeping meetings private
After Stoneman Douglas parents complained that Runcie hadn’t met with them, he initially agreed to hold a meeting Jan. 24 that would be open to the public and include three School Board members: Alhadeff, Rupert and Bartleman. But the district abruptly canceled that meeting, citing the threat of protests.
The district then scheduled four private meetings with parents of students in each grade level at Stoneman Douglas.
The Sun Sentinel’s lawsuit argued that the closed meetings prevent the community from monitoring the school district and its official actions.
The School Board argued that multiple School Board members could attend as long as only one spoke. Others could sit quietly and listen, District General Counsel Barbara Myrick said.
Alhadeff was the only one allowed to speak at Thursday’s meeting. Rupert, the second School Board member there, remained silent.
Broward Circuit Judge Jack Tuter held a telephone hearing Monday with lawyers from the school district and the Sun Sentinel, in an attempt to work out a compromise on Monday’s meeting. Although the district did not admit violating the state’s open-meeting laws, Tuter — at the request of the Sun Sentinel — ordered that a court reporter transcribe the meeting.
The public is turned away
A Sun Sentinel reporter attended Thursday’s parent meeting as a guest of a parent, allowed to enter after showing identification.
But Monday, when a reporter arrived as a guest of a Broward County commissioner, the reporter was turned away. A police officer told the reporter the meeting was not open to the news media.
School District spokeswoman Kathy Koch said last week that only parents of Stoneman Douglas children, including those whose children died in the tragedy, could attend.
She said the parents’ children could not attend. But right after a Sun Sentinel reporter was denied entry, the school let in student activist David Hogg, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas last year and whose sister, Lauren, is a 10th-grader.
Rebecca Hogg, parent of David and Lauren, said to Runcie: “Our community is in trauma, and we need you to step up or get the f— out of the way. No disrespect.”
The district also opened the meeting to all elected officials. All five members of the Parkland City Commission reportedly attended.
Inside the meeting, the mood was largely hostile toward Runcie, according to people who attended.
Runcie told the crowd he had tried to visit each of the families who had lost loved ones in the massacre.
“Not mine, Mr. Runcie,” Alhadeff said.
Parent Gloria Moschella also asked Runcie to resign. She told him parents were offended they had to ask for the meetings and they never wanted them to be private.
She said the district wasted money on public relations that should have been put into trauma assistance, according to attendees.
After Monday’s meeting, Alhadeff told the Sun Sentinel she wanted all the School Board members to attend. She said it bothers her the district fought hard to keep the meetings private. The issues were important to taxpayers and to parents in other nearby schools. “I think the superintendent was trying to control the conversation,” she said.