A town hall on school safety turned raucous Monday as supporters of embattled Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie packed J.P. Taravella High, frequently drowning out the voices of his fiercest critics.
Although concerns about arming teachers and the lack of metal detectors were addressed, the crowd grew far more passionate on the question of whether Runcie should stay or go.
Many Parkland parents called for Runcie to resign during recent closed-door safety meetings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the site of the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre that killed 17 people.
“As much as some people want to get rid of Bob Runcie, we feel just as strongly it ain’t gonna happen,” State Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Pompano Beach, said to wild applause from supporters and a smaller number of boos and heckles from critics.
Several black churches brought buses to take people to the meeting. In addition to more than 500 people inside the packed auditorium, several hundred more listened through a live feed in the school cafeteria.
Police officers stopped people from walking into the auditorium after the event started at 6:30 p.m., saying there was no more room. One officer tried to keep a reporter who had already been in the auditorium from re-entering.
The crowd frequently invoked God and religion into their speeches.
“I pray God continues to give you strength to endure this ongoing nightmare,” said Brian Johnson, vice mayor of West Park. “An entire community is watching you and admire your strength.”
Fred Guttenberg, a Runcie critic whose daughter Jaime was killed at Stoneman Douglas, questioned whether Runcie was stoking racial tensions.
“I’m frustrated as hell. What is happening that has made this about color and socioeconomic status? This is about security,” Guttenberg said. “”I blame you. My daughter is dead and this community is coming apart.”
Runcie replied, “I know whatever I do, it’s not enough because I can’t bring your daughter back.” He said he was not a leader to “cut and run.”
“Yeah, we made mistakes. There are things we could’ve done differently,” Runcie said. “But our heart and soul was in the right place. … We can’t have the anger and frustration. We have to collaborate, look in our souls and find love and cooperation.”
While the crowd remained respectful to family members who lost loved ones in the tragedy, they started booing loudly when other Runcie critics complained about his leadership or called on his resignation.
When one woman complained about the controversial Promise program and accused the district of missing warning signs about the Stoneman Douglas killer, a Runcie supporter shouted out, “Oh come on! Get the politics out of it!”
Among Runcie’s critics is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is having a grand jury investigate how well the district managed security and other matters. As he has previously, Runcie voiced support for that decision.
“We welcome the fact we’re going to have a grand jury look at what we actually do and can get the facts out out versus some of the information we’ve seen that’s out there,” Runcie said, suggesting criticism in the media has been unfair.
The crowd cheered loudly at speakers who opposed arming teachers as well as those who called for a ban on assault weapons or other forms of gun control.
The meeting came about after the district abruptly canceled a public town hall meeting at Stoneman Douglas on Jan. 24, citing unspecified security threats.
The district then held four private meetings with Stoneman Douglas that were closed to the public and most School Board members. Board member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter was killed at Stoneman Douglas, said she wanted to hold a public meeting so other School Board members could hear from her community.
One issue some Parkland parents have pushed for has been metal detectors.
Michael Dorn, a district safety consultant with the Georgia-based Safe Havens International, cautioned against metal detectors.
He said weapons have gotten through every school district he knows that uses metal detectors. He said they also require students to be patted down and for the district to X-ray bags. He said the tab is about $1 million per school, mostly for staffing costs.
“I can’t sit here and say things people want to hear,” he said.
“What if it saves one person’s life?” a woman shouts out.
Max Schachter, whose son Alex died at Stoneman Douglas, told district officials, “I don’t think anyone wants to hear it’s not possible to protect us from another gun attack.”
District officials talked about steps they had taken, including installing fencing and cameras at schools and passing policies related to spaces where students can hide during a mass shooting.
However, Brian Katz, the district’s new chief of safety and security, said, “Anyone who guarantees safety to you is lying to you,” he said. “What we can do is mitigate risk.”
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