Ron DeSantis Exploited Parkland Grief to Take Over a School Board, Critics Say

In April 2021, inside a high-rise building in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a meeting of the Broward County School Board came to an abrupt standstill when then-superintendent Robert Runcie announced he would resign. A decade earlier, Runcie had become the first permanent Black superintendent ever hired in the district, the sixth-largest in the nation, with around 260,000 students and 330 campuses. A program he helped launch in 2013, to address the “school-to-prison pipeline,” was hailed as a national model and possible inspiration for federal guidance released the following year by Barack Obama’s administration.

But after the 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, long viewed as one of the most desirable schools in Broward, Runcie’s program became a focus of local grief and a target of conservative attacks. When Republican Ron DeSantis was elected governor, he promptly called for a grand jury to investigate whether school policies had enabled the tragedy, ultimately leading to Runcie’s arrest for alleged perjury in April 2021 and then, last week, the removal of all remaining Broward school board members who had supported him.

Depending where one stood, the investigation was either an effort to get to the bottom of safety failures that had enabled the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre, or a ploy to scapegoat progressive education reforms and deflect from the total lack of action against U.S. gun violence.

Over the years since the shooting, that question had become entrenched in bitter local divisions that often broke along political and racial lines. Many (though not all) of those cheering Runcie’s arrest were white suburban conservatives who said his policies allowed “known criminals” to remain in public schools, endangering other students. Many (though not all) of those who denounced it were liberals, including much of Broward’s Black community, who saw the accusations and the grand jury as the definition of a “political hit job.”

As these familiar arguments were rehashed yet again in the April 2021 meeting — which, not for the first time, revolved around whether Runcie should be fired — the superintendent spoke up to say he couldn’t continue to lead the district in its current climate of “grievances, anger and hate.” Turning to address one board member in particular — Lori Alhadeff, who was elected in 2018 after her daughter was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) — Runcie said, “If it’s going to give you peace, and it’s going to give you and those other parents who remain angry — because I don’t see how there’s anything else I can do — if it’s going to give you that, I will step aside.”

As the meeting continued, after the initial shock, some of the board began to cry. “What happened here has nothing to do with children,” said board member Laurie Rich Levinson. “It has nothing to do with education. Nothing.”

Yet the outcome, after three years of heartbreak and animosity, seemed like the end of a chapter. As the last two weeks have shown, it was not.

On Aug. 19, after a 16-month court fight to redact its contents, the grand jury report that preceded Runcie’s indictment was finally released, four days before Florida’s primary elections, which included Broward school board races and a school tax referendum. Then, August 26, DeSantis announced he would follow the report’s recommendation to unseat the four remaining Broward school board members who had defended Runcie’s tenure, effective immediately. They included Rich Levinson and Ann Murray, who had already announced their retirement; Patricia Good, who was set to remain in office until 2024; and Donna Korn, who won her primary re-election campaign last week. (The report’s recommendation to also remove former board chair Rosalind Osgood was moot since Osgood was elected to the state Senate this March.)

In their place, DeSantis appointed four Republican men who, combined with the Republican man he had already chosen to fill Osgood’s seat, meant that the governor’s unelected appointees now command the majority of a nine-member board in Florida’s most reliably Democratic stronghold.

If this struck many as unprecedented aggression — a right-wing governor known for attacking public education replacing half of an elected school board 10 weeks before the next election — some told themselves the new conservative majority couldn’t accomplish much before November, when the board will likely return to liberal control. But this week, those hopes dimmed, as DeSantis’ appointees elected one of their own to chair the new board and vowed to take “swift action” to address the grand jury report. DeSantis’ administration also sent the district a letter warning of impending new investigations, largely focused on the arrest diversion program Broward made famous, and on Thursday, according to reports from district staff, representatives of the state Department of Education arrived in town to begin.

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This isn’t the first time DeSantis has used his office to tangle with Democratic officials, in Broward and elsewhere. Shortly after his inauguration, he suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, whose office had become associated with failures to act during the MSD shooting. DeSantis also accepted the forced resignation of Brenda Snipes, supervisor of elections in Broward County, which became the target of a vigorous 2018 “stop the steal” campaign led by conservative activists who later championed Donald Trump’s 2020 refusal to concede.

In early August, DeSantis suspended a public prosecutor in the Tampa area who announced he would not prosecute abortion cases. And last week, after initial rumors that he might attack Broward’s current election chief, DeSantis staff were accused of blocking local Democrats from attending a courthouse press conference to promote his new, already-troubled election police force.

But Broward schools have also become a particular target. In August 2021, after most of its school board voted to flout DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates, the state education department withheld their salaries. Then-Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who has proposed collapsing Florida’s public school system by attrition, warned the pay stoppage was only an “initial consequence,” which might be followed by firing board members. Even before his election, DeSantis intervened in Broward during his 2018 primary campaign, saying Robert Runcie should be fired.

By that time, Runcie had become the focus of a national right-wing narrative that the real fault for the Parkland shooting lay in the arrest diversion program he’d helped create. That initiative, the PROMISE Program, was built to address glaring racial disparities in school arrests, expulsions and suspensions that have been linked to exponentially higher risk of students ending up incarcerated, even as research found that much of the discipline meted out to students of color is for subjective offenses like “disruptive behavior” that is often excused for white students.

When Runcie was hired in 2011, Broward had the most school arrests in the state, nearly three-quarters of those for misdemeanor offenses like graffiti or possessing marijuana. PROMISE proposed to replace arrests and suspensions for 13 common types of misbehavior or misdemeanors, like “minor fighting” or alcohol possession, by sending students to a temporary program at an alternative school to receive counseling and social services. Within four years, Broward’s school arrests dropped 63 percent, including, administrators said, cases like kindergartners who might have otherwise been arrested for temper tantrums.

From its inception, PROMISE was primarily aimed at helping poorer students of color access the second chances long available to students in Broward’s whiter, wealthier schools. But after Parkland, the program was targeted by conservative activists, largely led by then-Manhattan Institute fellow Max Eden, who charged that it had created a “culture of leniency” that encouraged school officials to underreport on-campus crime and misbehavior, thus allowing the MSD shooter, Nikolas Cruz, to “slip through the cracks.”

Within weeks of the massacre, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter had suggested PROMISE was part of a “school to mass murder pipeline”; Richard Corcoran (then speaker of the state House) announced legislation to revoke Broward’s “no-arrest policy”; and Sen. Marco Rubio called on the Trump administration to rescind Obama’s 2014 guidance document regarding racial disparities in school discipline. Eden would later acknowledge that the narrative he helped build had been “very politically convenient” — in essence, allowing conservatives to argue that a program meant to help poor Black students avoid criminal records was the reason a white teen from Broward’s most elite suburb had been able to evade arrest and buy a gun.

Despite confusing early reports that Cruz might have been referred to PROMISE more than four years before the shooting (for breaking a bathroom sink as a middle-school student), the head of a commission investigating the roots of the tragedy ultimately found that PROMISE played no role, saying it was “completely irrelevant, it’s a rabbit hole, it’s a red herring, it’s immaterial.” But Runcie’s initial insistence that Cruz had no connection whatsoever with the program, combined with the growing strength of the conservative narrative, sparked an ugly local school board battle, as a slate of bereaved Parkland family members and their allies campaigned to take over the board, close PROMISE and fire the superintendent.

Ultimately, all but one of the MSD-affiliated candidates, Lori Alhadeff, lost their races in August 2018. But DeSantis won his primary, then eked out a narrow victory in the general election that November. After his inauguration, he swiftly appointed two Parkland parents to the state Board of Education, including one, Andrew Pollack, who vowed he would “take [Runcie] out if it’s the last thing I do on earth.” While DeSantis acknowledged early on that he didn’t have legal authority to fire Runcie, who was not an elected official, the governor instead marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting by calling for a Department of Education audit of PROMISE and other Florida discipline diversion programs as well as a grand jury investigation into whether Broward’s school district bore responsibility for the massacre.

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Two weeks ago, against the backdrop of Nikolas Cruz’s ongoing sentencing hearing — to determine whether his guilty plea for 17 counts of murder will result in a death sentence or life without parole — the grand jury’s report was finally released. Although it was completed in April 2021, a lawsuit by members of the school board denounced in its pages, seeking to redact their names, had blocked its release until now. After their final appeal was exhausted in mid-August, the DeSantis administration released it on the eve of primary elections that had already seen the governor make an unprecedented slate of endorsements in school board races that, by law, are nonpartisan.

The report proved explosive as the grand jury wrote that five of Broward’s school board members should be removed by the governor, given their “deceit, malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence.” (Jurors wrote they had also considered abolishing the board altogether.) In scathing, often florid language, the report compared the board to a “pyramid scheme,” a “self-styled illuminati” and a fish that “rots from the head down.” It called Runcie a frequent liar who “speaks with a forked tongue” and invoked Picasso, Einstein and Shakespeare to describe the entire district leadership as arrogant, dishonest and unaccountable, and in need of “a deep and thorough housecleaning” that goes beyond the board to include unnamed longtime employees “corrupted” by the district’s culture.

DeSantis announced the suspensions August 26, declaring that it was his “duty to suspend people from office when there is clear evidence of incompetence, neglect of duty, misfeasance or malfeasance,” and saying he hoped the action would bring “the Parkland community another step towards justice.”

But although the grand jury report was framed as a response to systemic failures that supposedly enabled the shooting, very little of it directly related to what happened in Parkland. Instead, the vast majority of the 122-page report was about how the Broward district had mismanaged a $800 million bond referendum passed in 2014 primarily to repair roofs on school buildings.

In fairness, the jury appeared to identify a number of legitimate issues, some traceable to Runcie and the board, which resulted in years-long delays that have left some schools with mold or mildew damage and collapsing infrastructure. But as former Broward chief academic officer Daniel Gohl put it, “That has nothing to do with what happened on Feb. 14, 2018. The grand jury was not impaneled to find out whether the Broward board could manage a construction project well, but that is why they are removing them.”

“What you’re seeing is the exploitation of a very tenuous connection between the concept of safety and mismanagement of the bond,” Gohl continued. “That’s the political utilization by the governor. It’s the hijacking of grief.”

In statements to the media, one of the ousted board members, Laurie Rich Levinson, echoed that charge, denouncing what she called a “bait-and-switch grand jury.” While DeSantis had promised the investigation would look at school safety, she told Florida’s ABC Local 10 News, “when you read this report, over three-quarters of it has nothing to do with school safety and it certainly did not find what was expected for the four issues that the grand jury was impaneled for.” Instead, she said the report had become a “political weapon” that used MSD families “as political pawns” to attack Broward Democrats.

In an interview with Salon, former board chair and state Sen. Rosalind Osgood said she was struck that throughout the report’s focus on the bond failures, one former colleague had escaped blame, despite voting for the same bond-related decisions the grand jury condemned. “Nora Rupert was the board chair during this time and voted to support all the items the other members did, but she’s not being removed,” said Osgood. “The only difference is that she wanted to get rid of Mr. Runcie.”

Indeed, the report drew a distinction between the “Runcie-friendly” members of the board and those who voted for his termination in 2019, after Lori Alhadeff called to fire the superintendent for “willful neglect of duty” — a motion that prompted a long and emotional meeting that included four hours of public comment, with five speakers calling for Runcie’s dismissal and 80 supporting him.

There were some direct references to MSD-related safety issues in the report. In one, the grand jury charged the bond’s mismanagement included failing to upgrade fire alarm systems in Broward schools to incorporate a delay before alarms are activated, so school officials can ensure there’s an actual emergency. During the shooting at MSD, the percussion of gunfire set off such an alarm, sending students on one floor into the hallways and thus into Cruz’s path.

The final fifth of the report turned to PROMISE and similar arrest diversion programs, arguing that, “In areas throughout this State, our children may be attending schools that are lying to us about how safe they are” and chastising Broward officials for their “autocratic conceit” in “subverting the ability of law enforcement to accurately assess and respond to student behavior.”

But while the report claimed its goal was “to prevent the development of conditions in which a tragedy such as the MSD shooting could ever happen again,” its authors were reluctantly forced to acknowledge that “we do not have evidence to outright declare that the combination of inaccurate data reporting, antipathy toward law enforcement, facile falsehoods by administration officials or the astonishing mismanagement of [bond] safety projects led directly to the MSD tragedy.” In dramatic language untypical of grand jury reports, they continued, “neither can we say they played no role in creating the darkness in which this malignancy grew.”

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Some Parkland families and their allies celebrated the suspensions. Ryan Petty, a bereaved MSD father appointed to the state education board in 2019, tweeted that the ousted members were “dishonorable, inept & incompetent.” Tony Montalto, who lost his daughter at MSD and is now president of the advocacy group Stand with Parkland, issued a statement alleging that the board’s “gross-negligence, misfeasance, malfeasance, and shear incompetence caused the mishandling of many of the aspects that led up to the tragic date that took the lives of so many.”

Max Schachter, who lost his son, tweeted, “Payback is a bitch!” Max Eden, who in 2021 celebrated Runcie’s resignation with a spree of Twitter posts, including lyrics to a Taylor Swift song about comeuppance and a meme referencing the capture of Saddam Hussein, was more restrained this time around, tweeting, “It took a few more years and many more twists and roundabouts than we had hoped, but #accountability for #Parkland has finally [come] for the Broward School board thanks to @RonDesantisFL.”

In a statement after the report’s release, Lori Alhadeff said its findings regarding “the many failures in our state’s schools are unacceptable” and those named for “wrongdoing must be held accountable.” On Monday, she endorsed the general election opponent of her former board colleague Donna Korn — who is still on the ballot for November — noting that Korn had voted to keep Runcie on as superintendent and “needs to be held accountable for that.”

Among conservatives more broadly, there was general elation. On Twitter, one person declared, “Ron DeSantis canned an entire Broward county school board. What’s the rest of the GOP doing to combat the problem in our schools?” A gun rights website urged, “Second Amendment supporters need to study and examine the state grand jury report that led to these suspensions, because it will help defeat anti-Second Amendment extremists via the ballot box at the federal, state, and local levels.”

But after DeSantis announced the board members’ replacements — several of whom have been heavily involved in Republican politics — plenty of other people voiced doubts. Suspended board member Rich Levinson unsurprisingly denounced the move, which she called “authoritarian-like,” “un-American and undemocratic.” But another bereaved MSD father, Fred Guttenberg, who had also criticized district officials, tweeted that he was conflicted: “While I am ok with them being removed, I don’t trust DeSantis as the person with pure intentions to do this. Looking at the replacements, he turned this into a politicized and bad outcome.”

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, told Salon, “We feel that it’s an intrusion and an interference, and just downright undemocratic, to come in and remove elected officials that were voted in by their constituents.” Describing the grand jury report as surprisingly “snarky” and opaque — with no opportunity for the public to understand what information had been brought before the jury, nor how its claims were verified — Fusco said the entire process seemed like “a politically-driven scenario” where “not all the facts are laid out of what was considered ‘malfeasance’ or ‘incompetence.’ Those words are thrown around a lot, but there was no definitive proof of how it was.”

To Jacqui Luscombe, a local parent and chair of the Broward Exceptional Student Education advisory council, which works on student disability issues, it was clear that “The grand jury began as one thing and then pivoted to another. Obviously they didn’t find enough to pin on them for anything to do with Parkland, and I think it pivoted in Tallahassee [the state capital] to, ‘OK, well let’s go after them for something else.'”

“Change can be a good thing or a bad thing, and voters can change the guard on school board members if they wish,” Luscombe continued. “But having them imposed by a political leader” — or public perception that the appointees come with a predetermined agenda — made people uneasy. “We have to follow the mission, which is to serve students and the community. And I think having board members [appointed] from Tallahassee, it doesn’t necessarily feel that’s what they’re here for. It’s difficult for the community to grasp who’s serving them and their children best, and who’s serving political masters in Tallahassee.”

Noting the “imbalance of advocacy” between the smaller group of Broward residents enthusiastic about the grand jury, and the broader swath of parents “who don’t have a platform,” Luscombe said, “I worry about the level to which the community really understands what has gone on here — what this is about and what is at stake.”

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Initially, many in Broward, including those deeply troubled by DeSantis’ intervention, assumed the newly-appointed board majority would have little chance to enact major changes before November, when elections will likely change the board’s composition again.

“Candidly, government entities move about the same way a battleship moves, which is certainly not on a dime,” said Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association, who added that school administrators’ primary desire was for stability, predictability and an end to politics in schools. “So any policy revisions that take literally months to accomplish, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that in less than 60 days.”

Former Broward chief academic officer Daniel Gohl foresaw some substantial changes that could be enacted more quickly, particularly since the DeSantis appointees now compose their own self-contained majority, able to pass policies without support from the board’s elected members. Among them is the prospect of placing the district under an inspector general — something that has been rejected more than once in recent years, but which some MSD community members have called for. Such an inspector might not even answer to local authorities, he warned, but rather to county or state agencies under the DeSantis administration’s control.

Early this week, however, any hope the appointees might merely keep their board seats warm until November seemed to shatter.

On Monday, new board member Torey Alston, a former DeSantis-appointed county commissioner, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he’d read the grand jury report in order to “be ready on day one” to “push for swift action.” Another appointee, former Broward Republican Party Chair Kevin Tynan, said, “It’s our challenge, especially those who are short-timers, to see what we can get done in that short term.” A third, Ryan Reiter, the government relations director of a local construction firm and former head of the Broward Young Republicans, said the report was at “the top of everybody’s mind right now, especially the gubernatorial appointees.” (On Wednesday, the Sun-Sentinel also reported that five years ago Reiter had been accused of domestic violence by his ex-fiancée, which he denied.)

Shortly after the new members were sworn in Tuesday morning, Alston, who will remain in his position until 2024, was elected board chair in a 5-4 vote, with all four remaining elected members instead voting for Lori Alhadeff. Saying he knew how to “turn around organizations,” Alston called for Broward to become a “reform school district” and the board to embrace “change management and crisis management.” Part of that, he went on, would include “holding all our staff accountable to present clear and actionable resolutions to all issues outlined in the [grand jury] report, soon and very soon.” Alston also said he wanted the board to issue recommendations based on the report within 30 days, “focused on people, programs, processes, the culture of the school district and stakeholders.”

The district also received a letter this Monday from Tim Hay, director of the Office of Safe Schools within the state Department of Education, warning that it had “reason to believe that some of the policies and actions the Grand Jury found are ongoing and require immediate action.” Among them, the letter specified, were that school officials “continued to commit” fraud and deceit in managing public bonds meant for school safety; that school officials “continue to violate state law” by underreporting on-campus crimes; that the district had used the PROMISE Program to facilitate that underreporting; that Broward allowed students convicted of serious felonies to reenter schools; and that the district had “trained administrators to not cooperate with law enforcement investigations.”

“Due to the gravity of the issues outlined above,” wrote Hay, the state would contact the superintendent “to arrange an in-person meeting this week to investigate these major concerns,” and the district’s “full cooperation” was expected.

“What stood out to me in the letter,” said Gohl, “is how focused it seems on settling old scores about public policy of student discipline.”

A year after the Parkland shooting, even Max Eden, the Manhattan Institute fellow who championed the anti-PROMISE cause, acknowledged in a book he co-authored with Andrew Pollack that “PROMISE itself barely factored into [Nikolas Cruz’s] story.”

But by then, PROMISE had become a form of shorthand for various failures involved in the tragedy, from MSD’s failure to move Cruz to a specialized school to repeated district missteps with the public and press to multiple law enforcement agencies’ failure to act on repeated warnings about Cruz. And the fight had broader repercussions. In late 2018, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used the shooting to justify rescinding the Obama administration’s federal guidance on school discipline reform. The bitter school board fight in Broward became a template for today’s ugly education fights nationwide. And this July, when the right-wing group Moms for Liberty held its first national summit, their closed-door strategy sessions for parent activists included a session led by Eden, described by one attendee as a lesson in how school policies about equity enabled Cruz to kill.

Now, as state Department of Education staff arrive in Broward to launch a new probe, it appears the issue is far from over.

“What I fear is they are going to paint ‘liberal’ Broward public schools as dangerous for ‘normal’ kids, coddling for ‘troubled’ kids, and out of control,” said Gohl. “DeSantis to the rescue for the ‘silent majority.’ Straight out of Nixon’s playbook.”

Gohl also worries that “they’re going to try to retroactively discipline” school staff — a prospect Fusco finds appalling. Educators in the district, she said, “have already been investigated,” have “never stopped being questioned” and are “still going through hell,” as Nikolas Cruz’s defense attorneys have argued that Broward schools failed him. “I’m not going to accept that we blame anybody in our school district for what Cruz did,” Fusco said. “Blame the person that did this, and the type of gun he used.”

“I just think, for God’s sake, where does it end?” asked Luscombe, reflecting on news of yet another investigation, four and a half years after the tragedy. “When does this stop and Broward School Board can just be a democratically-elected board, chosen by the people it serves?”