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Ex-Principal Questions Runcie's Excuse for Misinformation About Parkland Shooter's Disciplinary RecordEXPAND
Photo by Ian Witlen

Ex-Principal Questions Runcie's Excuse for Misinformation About Parkland Shooter's Disciplinary Record

After WLRN caught him spreading misinformation about Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz's referral to the controversial Promise disciplinary program, Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie blamed scattered record-keeping in the district. But a former assistant principal at the school where the program is housed now says Runcie is also misleading the public about how student discipline data is kept.

In fact, Tim Sternberg says, Cruz's full disciplinary records should have been immediately available to administrators.

"When he said that, I was shocked because district administrators have access to every student in the county," says Sternberg, who has been critical of the district in the aftermath of the shooting. "It's absolutely nonsensical to me."

Runcie did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Sternberg's criticism. District spokesperson Tracy Clark reiterated the superintendent's earlier statement that data is housed in multiple systems, including some records that are only on paper. Lisa Maxwell, the executive director of the Broward Principals' and Assistants' Association, also backed up the district's claims, saying there is "not really a central repository when it comes to all of a student's records."

After the February 14 massacre killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Runcie repeatedly denied Cruz was ever referred to Promise. Conservatives have blamed the program, which allows students who commit misdemeanors to attend an alternative school rather than be arrested, for allowing Cruz to slip through the cracks.

This past Monday, WLRN revealed that, in fact, Cruz had been assigned to Promise in 2013 for vandalism while in middle school, though he does not appear to have completed the recommended three-day placement. (Contrary to some reports, even if Cruz had been arrested on a misdemeanor vandalism charge, it would not have prevented him from later buying a gun when he turned 18.)

A swift backlash hit the superintendent after Monday's news that Cruz indeed had a connection to Promise. But Runcie told New Times that reviewing Cruz's record wasn't as simple as looking at a screen. He said the district's systems have evolved over time and some of the records were even kept on paper.

"You have to go through multiple places to get all of the information," the superintendent said. "All that I know is at the time that I made those statements, I gave the public exactly what I had from staff."

Yet Sternberg, who left the district last year after a dispute with the principal at his school, says he was instructed as an administrator to enter all disciplinary information into a system that contained a student's entire record. He said that he often reviewed that data when a new student entered his school and that such data can be retrieved with a few keystrokes. It's imperative that administrators have that information, he says.

"If I have a student that's committing infraction after infraction after infraction, as an administrator I should be going, 'I have to refer this student somewhere else; we're not handling this as a school or able to handle it as a school,'" he says.

Despite his criticism of Runcie, though, Sternberg remains supportive of Promise as a program. He believes some procedures are flawed in how it is run, but he thinks the program — which was created to help stop the prison-to-schools pipeline — "has so much potential to do a lot of good." He suggests that if Cruz had completed his assignment in Promise, he might have been helped.

During a forum about Promise held Monday night at a Broward high school, many of the speakers expressed support for the program, even given the revelations about Runcie's misstatements. Lusesita Gonzalez, who is 13, cried as she described how she's benefited from Promise. “It gives kids the second chance that they never had,” she told the forum.

Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed in the shooting, called the school district's Monday's reversal "shocking." But in an interview with New Times Tuesday, he said he also doesn't see Promise as the problem. 

"Students need a second chance," says Petty, a member of the state-launched commission studying the massacre. "They need another opportunity, and I think that's the intention of the Promise program. I think the issue is the overall discipline policies within the school district, and the poor execution and implementation of those policies has created an environment where teachers and principals and administrators don't know how to apply the appropriate discipline policy." 

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