Racial rift emerges over Parkland shooting and Superintendent Robert Runcie

They grieved with Parkland and the county and the nation. They mourned the senseless loss of 17 souls at school, supported tougher security measures and cheered on teens pushing for gun reform.

But now that the movement for accountability after the 2018 massacre has focused on ousting the highly educated, hard-working, Jamaican-born schools chief, many in Broward County’s African-American community are saying no. Stop. Enough.

Word spread in black churches, across neighborhoods and through social media: Come to a town hall meeting on security issues and make your support known for Robert Runcie. An email from a school district department head went out urging attendance and accusing Runcie’s detractors of using “vile language” not seen “since desegregation orders were enforced.”

Hundreds of people of color responded, packing Monday’s meeting in Coral Springs and publicly objecting to campaigns to “demonize him.” At least two historically black churches delivered buses full of people to the meeting, held in the auditorium at J.P. Taravella High School. An overflow crowd filled the cafeteria.

Fort Lauderdale lawyer Chris Smith, a former state senator, said many in the black community have taken offense to the aggressive approach they’ve seen from some Runcie critics in the Parkland area.

“The tone coming from some of the Parkland parents has gotten the African-American community upset,” Smith said.

After the shooting happened, he said, “you saw many people, black and white, supporting and wearing MSD shirts. I drove my family all the way to Parkland to be at the park” where memorials were held.

But he said now: “Their rhetoric has become inflammatory and very, very partisan. Now it seems like they’re out for blood.”

As an example, Smith referred to a comment from one Parkland parent that “Democrats are liars.”

Broward is a Democratic stronghold in Florida. Half of all registered voters in the county are Democrats, and another 28 percent have no party affiliation.

Among the county’s black population, about 80 percent are registered as Democrats. Most others chose no party affiliation.

Aside from the desire to see Runcie removed, the most vocal Parkland parents have advocated for the dismantling of Runcie’s signature “Promise” program, which seeks to reverse a school-to-prison pipeline for Broward students, with the cooperation of police and prosecutors. About 68 percent of the children in the Promise program are black, according to 2016 district statistics.

The program has come to be seen by many in Parkland as fostering a culture of leniency that let the Stoneman Douglas shooter escape the juvenile justice system despite threatening students, bringing bullets to school and damaging school property.

But the Promise program — which is supposed to be for only minor, nonviolent offenses — has great support in the black community, where parents see it as a step toward keeping their sons and daughters out of an inherently biased justice system.

Runcie also gets high marks for reducing the number of number of F-rated schools in Broward County down to just one this year.

Said Smith: “This is a bigger county than just the northwest quadrant. The entire county isn’t messed up. A lot of people are happy with the school district and the safety of kids. After the unfortunate incident last year, there are things that can be done and fixed, but we get this picture that this is the worst school district in the country.”

A controversial invitation

Monday’s town hall meeting came a year after the massacre on Feb. 14, 2018. There is still grief, anger and raw emotions.

A couple of weeks ago, an email went out from the director of the district’s diversity department to his staff, black community leaders, teachers and others urging people to attend Monday’s town hall meeting to “make a statement in support of our superintendent.”

The email, obtained by the Sun Sentinel, said that Runcie had met privately several times with parents and stakeholders from Stoneman Douglas and the encounters had been “loud, aggressive and hostile.”

“The types of words used and vile language have been like nothing that has been seen since desegregation orders were enforced,” wrote David L. Watkins, director of the school system’s Department of Equity and Diversity.

Watkins did not return a call and email for comment. District spokeswoman Cathy Brennan told the Sun Sentinel that he “was referring to divisiveness in the community.” She did not elaborate.

Though the email began by stating that “Mr. Runcie is inviting you to come …,” the superintendent said in an interview that he had not seen it and was unaware of it.

“This is a big county, right?,” Runcie said. “So the fact that there are people there from other avenues — it was a countywide town hall. I mean, I think it showed some kind of balance.”

The sending of the email may have crossed a line, however.

Retired principal Rebecca Dahl, who is active on several school district committees, said she believes Watkins violated a policy on using email for a personal agenda or to make inflammatory remarks.

“The minute I saw ‘desegregation,’ I thought, ‘Who are you kidding there?’ It’s inflammatory,” she said. “I thought we were supposed to be talking about school safety, not a segregation issue.”

District spokeswoman Brennan said there was no wrongdoing and nothing improper about an employee inviting members of the public to a public meeting. “He is permitted to express his opinion about why a person might want to come to the town hall meeting,” she said.

State Rep. Shevrin Jones believes Runcie has become a “punching bag,” subject to verbal attacks and abuse, including people “threatening the life of him and his family.”

Rosalind Osgood, the school board’s only black member, said “there has been constant offensive racial remarks posted, tweeted and written” about the turnout at the town hall. She cited one teen’s online post calling it “despicable” that people were bused in while “legitimately concerned parents had no chance to speak or even find a seat.”

Parkland parents are aghast at the suggestion that their demands for accountability over the deaths of their children are construed as racially motivated.

Andrew Pollack, who lost his daugther Meadow in the shooting, tweeted at the superintendent, “Shame on you for further victimizing the Parkland parents by depicting us as racist to deflect from your ineptitude as Superintendent.”

At Monday’s town hall meeting, a visibly upset Fred Guttenberg said the bullet that shot his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, “did not know the color she was or her socioeconomic status.”

“I’m frustrated as hell at what has happened in this room tonight to make this about color and socioeconomic status,” he said. “This is about security.”

Although race was rarely mentioned directly during Monday’s meeting, Guttenberg said the overtones were there.

He pointed out that Sen. Thurston told the crowd: “As much as some people want to get rid of Bob Runcie, we feel just as strongly it ain’t gonna happen.”

Guttenberg told the Sun Sentinel: “The feeling was we should all shut up. It became very clear something else was going on, and that entire night, there was an undercurrent of race in the comments.”

“Fix it”

Many who suffered a loss in Parkland feel Runcie has not moved quickly enough to “fix it,” as Pollack says in a regular hashtag on social media.

Security watchmen who failed to stop the gunman were not quickly fired. Key administrators at the school are still employed. The district only recently adopted a Code Red policy. Not every school has a single point of entry. Not every school has doors that teachers can lock without stepping outside and risking getting shot.

Tony Montalto, who buried his daughter, Gina, acknowledged at the town hall meeting that some changes have been made “but everyone should recognize there has not been a sense of urgency for making Broward County schools safe.” He said more often than not Runcie and the school board “let obstacles get in the way of their action. Good leaders find a way to get things done despite the challenges they face,” he said.

Runcie told the crowd that he is committed to making schools safer through “layers of security,” including exterior fencing, single points of entry, police and armed guardians at each school, additional cameras and improved surveillance measures.

But he said he knew that “no matter what we are doing I keep hearing it’s not enough.”

Runcie told Guttenberg: “I can’t bring your daughter back. I can’t do it.”

The head of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas commission, which investigated the tragedy, said the school district has lacked urgency in fixing problems, but he called Runcie and his staff “professional, transparent and cooperative.”

Yet Runcie’s supporters say even that was not enough to satisfy the Parkland victims.

The school district immediately was subjected to a grand jury investigation, called for by Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, who said if he had the power to oust Runcie he would.

In a recent column, Bobby R. Henry Sr., publisher of the black-owned Westside Gazette, wrote that no other superintendent or school board member in the country has been asked to resign or step down after a school shooting.

Why now? “Could it be the accused accomplices are Black and those that are bringing charges are rich well-to-do white people or because the locale of the grounds of the killing floor is Parkland and the others represent the intercity where Black lives are lost every day to gun violence and there seems to be no songs for them.”

At the town hall meeting, Runcie said the Parkland tragedy has “absolutely changed and impacted me every single day. “

Each morning, he said, he thinks about the Parkland families and “what we can do as a school system to move forward and help this community heal.”

The shooting happened under his watch, he said.

“I need to fix it.”

momatz@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4518