How the Broward school district deflected criticism after the Parkland shooting

The Sun-Sentinel published a story today looking at the myriad of ways in which the Broward County school district attempted to shut down questions and deflect criticism after the Parkland shooting. At every turn, the paper says the district fought the release of information to the press and hired multiple PR specialists to stonewall the public. At the center of all of this was an effort to whitewash the school’s failures with regard to Nikolas Cruz.

In March, Superintendent Robert Runcie announced what he promised would be an “independent, comprehensive assessment” of what happened. Instead, the district hired a consultant it had worked with previously to write a report with a narrow focus: Had the district broken any laws in its handling of Nikolas Cruz. The details of the report were to be kept secret. A heavily redacted version of the report was finally released in August:

With a judge’s approval, the district obscured references to Cruz — nearly two-thirds of the text — to protect his privacy under law. Only when the Sun Sentinel obtained and published an uncensored copy did the truth come out: Cruz was deeply troubled; the district improperly withdrew support he needed; he asked for additional services; and the district bungled his request, leaving him spinning without help.

Startling as those details were, they pale in light of new information obtained by the Sun Sentinel, none of it included in the consultant’s report or shared publicly by the school district.

The district was well aware that Cruz, for years, was unstable and possibly murderous:

— “I’m a bad kid. I want to kill,” Cruz, now 20 years old, ominously told a teacher in middle school.

— “I strongly feel that Nikolas is a danger to the students and faculty at this school,” Cruz’s eighth-grade language arts teacher wrote in a behavioral evaluation. “I do not feel that he understands the difference between his violent video games and reality.”

— In middle school, he “stated he felt nervous about one day going to jail and wondered what would happen to him if he did something bad.”

— Cruz told one teacher in October 2013 — 4½ years before his Parkland rampage — that “I would rather be on the street killing animals and setting fires.”

When the Sun-Sentinel published the unredacted report, the school district asked a judge to “initiate contempt proceedings” against the two reporters involved, which could potentially have resulted in them being jailed. The same report also looked at how Cruz wound up back at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school and, once again, fails to note signs of serious trouble once he started there:

In February 2016, just weeks after Cruz started full time at Stoneman Douglas, a neighbor reported to the sheriff’s office how unhinged he was. Cruz posted online that he planned to “shoot up a school,” the neighbor said.

The statement does not appear in the consultant’s report; it is not included in Cruz’s school files. Instead, the report portrayed the volatile Cruz as a success story at the time. He was “experiencing positive academic progress with only minor behavioral challenges,” the report said.

The one thing the report does acknowledge, albeit without criticizing the district, is that Cruz probably should have had what’s called a behavioral intervention plan. That means a plan for monitoring Cruz once he returned to MSD.

Sending him to Stoneman Douglas without a behavioral plan was a grave mistake, said Dottie Provenzano, a retired special education coordinator for Broward schools…

The school district’s actions were “just total negligence — serious, not minor,” said Provenzano, the former special education coordinator. “The way I look at it, we don’t have dead children if the school district had done what they needed to do.”

There’s a lot more in the Sun-Sentinel report, including a section about the consultant they hired whose recommendation to her clients is that they “stop talking” if they want to save their own jobs. It seems that the message got through.

Not mentioned in the story is the fact that while all of these efforts to clamp down on information about Cruz and the school’s handling of him were happening internally, CNN was heavily promoting the Parkland students and their explicitly partisan gun control message culminating in a two-hour-long town hall event which was primarily focused on that topic. That was emotionally satisfying to a lot of people, but it also provided cover for a school district that was eager to “stop talking” about its own failures leading up to this terrible disaster. The school’s efforts to deflect criticism and shut down discussion of what really went wrong here wouldn’t have been quite as easy if the public hadn’t already been handed a convenient, emotional scapegoat by CNN.

When is CNN going to devote two hours of prime time to discuss the contents of this Sun-Sentinel report? The answer, of course, is never.