Politics & Policy

Parkland a Year Later: The Deadly Failures of Broward County Persist

Parents and students at a memorial on the anniversary of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., February 14, 2019. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
Family members and survivors continue to press the case for more-responsible school-safety measures.

‘That gun was like a toy gun compared to his, but he still should have confronted him.”

Months after the Parkland shooting, and several miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, two middle-aged men, one wearing a jacket with a security-guard insignia, munched on McDonald’s burgers and discussed the deadly failures of a Broward County sheriff’s deputy the day of the tragedy. As the tumultuous summer drew to a close, the politically charged area was still enveloped by an eerie calm, punctured sometimes by hushed comments mentioning the shooting.

The school resource officer in question, Scot Peterson, and seven other deputies were branded the “cowards of Broward” after surveillance footage showed them hiding outside the school building while a disturbed former student gunned down children inside with an AR-15 rifle on that sad Valentine’s Day a year ago. In the weeks that followed, it became apparent that the shocking behavior of the deputies, which contributed to the loss of 17 lives that day, was not a fluke but the tip of deeply entrenched dysfunction, inadequate training, and corruption that still permeates Broward County.

Slowly, it dawned on horrified observers that Parkland may have been the most avoidable mass shooting in the country’s history.

Broward deputies could not remember the last time they had participated in active-shooter training, not even whether it was in the past ten or 20 years. It was ten months after the shooting before Broward changed Sheriff Scott Israel’s active-shooter policy to read that deputies “shall,” rather than “may,” enter the scene of a shooting. Peterson, who resigned as deputy after backlash over his failure to respond, now receives an $8,700 monthly pension.

In contrast, officers from the neighboring Coral Springs police department blasted past the hiding Broward deputies and into the school after the massacre ended.

Other failures plaguing the police response included failing radio systems, uncoordinated leadership, and a slow 911 system that transferred calls from those trapped in the building to county police, forcing terrified teachers and students to explain the active-shooter situation a second time.

A retired high-ranking officer on a neighboring county’s police force described a “culture of fear gripping the troops at BSO” in an interview with National Review.

“So many are afraid to speak freely for fear of reprisals,” he said.

“Israel is not well liked among other sheriffs or chiefs of police in South Florida,” the officer said. “He doesn’t like to work very closely with other agencies, and he’s largely seen as very arrogant and closed off.”

The officer, who was a instructor for active shooter response within his agency, said Broward “violated every tenet of response that is now the norm throughout the country.”

“Frankly, I can’t comprehend how the BSO deputies didn’t ignore the ridiculous orders to not go in,” he said.

The previous sheriff, Al Lamberti, had the respect of South Florida law enforcement, but lost to Israel because he “just wasn’t a good politician,” a result this officer called “a shame.”

“I’ve kind of stayed away from speaking too much about Israel or the Parkland shooting with my friends, but in the little bit we have talked, I know they are so embarrassed by what happened there, and would trade their souls to have been there for the shooting to protect those poor kids,” the retired South Florida officer lamented.

Despite months of outraged calls from family members of the victims for him to step down, Israel, a Democrat, was suspended only last month by Republican governor Ron DeSantis, elected in November. The ensconced sheriff was replaced by veteran Coral Springs police sergeant Gregory Tony, who has vowed to make active-shooter preparedness a priority.

“The aftermath of the shooting was just one giant cover-up,” shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv told National Review in October as the victims’ families struggled to obtain public records related to the disaster from authorities. The dysfunction persisted over the summer, when despite promises that there would soon be armed security guards in every school, 28 summer-school sites were left with no such guards to protect the third-graders enrolled there.

“It’s a joke at this point,” Kashuv said. “I don’t know how parents in good conscience can send their kids to Stoneman Douglas when nothing has changed regarding security measures at all.”

Law enforcement was not the only entity where crippling dysfunction and corruption festered in the days leading up to the shooting. The Broward County school district mismanaged school-safety funds and mishandled its disciplinary system, often in concert with law enforcement.

A student journalist in the district, Kenneth Preston, wrote a lengthy report detailing how low a priority school safety had become in the months leading up to the shooting. He found that about $100 million slated for school safety had sat in stagnation, delaying at least one project that could have saved six lives on the third floor of the building.

Stoneman Douglas was set to have a new fire-alarm system installed that would have delayed the alarm in case it was set off as a prank. If the system had been updated on time, students on the third floor would not have flowed out of their classrooms at the sound of the alarm, and the shooter would not have been able to gun them down immediately.

In September, Preston spoke before the school board and asked members to explain “why the security programs weren’t made a priority” before the shooting. Hunter Pollack, the older brother of Meadow, who was shot and killed on the third floor, listened on the phone. Instead of answering the family member of a victim, the school board informed the two that “we do not engage in back-and-forth discourse with public speakers” and had security remove Preston.

At the time, Broward Schools superintendent Robert Runcie called Preston’s report “fake news.” Runcie referred the student journalist to the nonprofit Florida TaxWatch to correct his numbers, but the group instead confirmed them to National Review. The district had spent only $10.95 million of the $109.7 million budgeted for school safety. Another $12.18 million was committed to projects, but progress on those was beset with delays and cost increases.

“The school district just isn’t genuine,” Pollack told National Review last fall. “They had so many excuses after. They had every excuse.”

“He should be fired for his incompetency and for his miscommunication after the shooting,” Pollack said of Runcie, adding that the families of victims received little consolation from the school administration. “If I were superintendent, I think I would have the decency and time to reach out to all 17 families.”

“His policy and disciplinary programs failed,” Meadow’s brother said. “If a football team is bad, it’s the coach’s fault. You get a new coach.”

Finally, one day before the shooting’s anniversary, DeSantis called for a grand-jury investigation into Runcie and the school district’s possible fraud and mismanagement, including the mishandling of school safety funds.

“This tragic and avoidable incident drew attention to systematic failures by school officials and other State actors to ensure student safety,” the governor’s request to Florida’s supreme court read. “Unfortunately, these failures are not unique, and they have not ceased.”

The school district also engaged in a massive cover-up of the glaring warnings school officials and law enforcement received about the shooter, 19-year-old former special-education student Nikolas Cruz, before he snapped. “We didn’t have any warnings,” Runcie told reporters the day of the shooting. “There weren’t any phone calls or threats that we know of that were made.”

On the contrary, police were called 18 times between 2008 and 2017 about the shooter, who was diagnosed with autism, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He also had a long string, at various schools, of disciplinary incidents, including vandalism, getting into fights, and bringing knives and ammunition to school. He even posted threats on social media to shoot up a school and called the police on himself at one point after a fight with a friend, saying he had just lost his mother and was “dealing with a bunch of things right now.”

Runcie also had to backtrack on his original claim that the shooter “wasn’t eligible” and was “never a participant in the Promise program,” an initiative that worked with law enforcement to allow troubled students to receive behavioral therapy instead of going to jail. The young gunman did in fact participate in the program, though he did not complete it.

“He knew. He just covered it up,” survivor Kashuv said of the superintendent’s narrative. “Runcie needs to go.”

“They realized that they messed up,” he added. “They just swept it under the rug.”

“These kids were getting chance after chance after chance,” Pollack said about the students who committed misdemeanors and landed in the Promise program, which enabled Runcie to tout a reduction in the district’s arrest rates.

In the aftermath, Parkland became known as the school shooting that might finally end school shootings, in large part because of the March for Our Lives, the group of Stoneman Douglas survivors who pushed, often angrily and emotionally, for radical gun-control legislation as the solution.

Family members and survivors who emphasized school safety, including Kashuv, Pollack, Patrick Petty, who lost his sister Alaina, plus Preston, an advocate for them, were not propped up in the media frenzy focusing on blanket gun control.

“They’re just like media hits,” Pollack remarked about the March for Our Lives students. “We actually care. We actually want to show corruption. They’re more concerned about getting followers. Nothing against them; I respect them.”

In the months that followed, the March for Our Lives kids sometimes neglected to respond to texts from the victims’ family members at all, a fact Kashuv called “not okay.”

“If [a Parkland family] is pushing for a solution that I even somewhat agree with or slightly agree with, I’m there to help,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s all about honoring those 17 people who were lost and how do we fix that down here.”

“It’s turned into a gun debate, which it really shouldn’t have to begin with. It should have been, Why did this happen here locally, how do we fix that, and how do we fix it on the national level,” the student survivor added.

Two parents who lost children in the shooting, Lori Alhadeff, who lost her daughter Alyssa, and Ryan Petty, who lost his daughter Alaina, ran for election to the school board, attempting to unseat some of the entrenched members. Petty lost his bid to incumbent Donna Korn, but Alhadeff won hers after the incumbent in her district, Abby Freedman, announced she would not seek reelection. Richard Mendelson, a Stoneman Douglas teacher, challenged incumbent Laurie Rich Levinson but lost his bid as well.

“A lot of those kids who were from the March for Our Lives who have powerful voices were not helping us when they should have been,” Kashuv explained. “When we we really needed assistance to change the school board, they weren’t there when they should have been.”

Cameron Kasky, who founded the March for Our Lives, did help for a few days with the campaigns for school-board elections. Kasky eventually stepped down from the March, saying he was “very regretful of a lot of the mistakes that I’ve made along the way.”

“I learned that a lot of our issues politically come from a lack of understanding of other perspectives and also the fact that so often young conservatives and young liberals will go into debate, like I said earlier, trying to beat the other one as oppose to come to an agreement,” Kasky said in September. “I’m working on some efforts to encourage bipartisanship or at least discussion that is productive and help a lot of people avoid the mistakes that I made.”

In the meantime, though, grieving families are still trying to hold accountable those whose failures allowed their children to be killed.

“Everyday hurts the same as the first,” Andrew Pollack wrote on Twitter on the anniversary of his daughter’s death. “Meadow, my life will never be the same without you, but I’ve been fighting everyday to make sure this never happens again. I promise you I’ll fix it.”

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