After Parkland, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie Battles the NRA and Local Critics

Robert Runcie has led the Broward County school district since 2011.
Robert Runcie has led the Broward County school district since 2011. Photo by Emilee McGovern

As the white Chevy Tahoe hurtled toward Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Broward schools Superintendent Robert Runcie jammed an iPhone to his ear. Between a never-ending stream of calls from reporters and school staffers and politicians asking questions he couldn't yet answer, he dialed Sheriff Scott Israel.

Just a few hours earlier on that sun-baked Valentine's Day, the slim, six-foot-four educator with closely cropped hair and a whisper of a mustache had beamed as he handed keys to a new car to the district's teacher of the year. He had grinned as Tammy Freeman ran to the bow-topped red Camry outside Monarch High, where students waved banners and silvery pompons. Now he was rushing to another school, where students — two or six or maybe more; the numbers kept changing, kept getting worse — had been shot to death in their classrooms. It was hard to comprehend.

"It's horrific," Israel told Runcie over the phone. School district spokesperson Tracy Clark, who was riding in the back seat, couldn't stop herself from cutting in. "What does that mean? What is that? What is that?" she demanded as Runcie tried to quiet her. Between 16 and 20 teenagers and their teachers were dead, the sheriff said, calling it the worst thing he'd ever seen.

The superintendent, famed all of his 56 years for being cool and composed, began to sob.

There, on a car-clogged stretch of the Sawgrass Expressway, the enormity of what had occurred settled over the SUV. As one of his schools became shorthand for horror, just like "Columbine" or "Sandy Hook," Runcie would have to take on the daunting task of leading everyone through the unfathomable tragedy. But in that private moment, as the Tahoe neared the tree-lined suburb of Parkland, all he could do was cry.

"I felt like I lost my own kids," says Runcie, a father of three grown daughters.

An unlikely superintendent from the start, Runcie soon found himself shoved onto a national stage to grapple with some of America's most charged issues: gun control, mental health, and school safety. In the weeks after former student Nikolas Cruz's Valentine's Day massacre, Runcie was hailed for his calm leadership and outspoken embrace of gun reform and the #NeverAgain movement.

The superintendent, famous all of his 56 years for being cool and composed, began to sob.

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But more recently, he's been slammed by outraged parents and activists egged on by conservatives already critical of his gun activism and even the NRA. They've targeted a program long considered his signature achievement in Broward: reforming discipline to keep students accused of low-level crimes in school instead of suspended, expelled, or behind bars. Critics argue the district's new approach under Runcie allowed dangerous students such as Cruz to go unnoticed by law enforcement.

"They failed those kids completely, right from the beginning," Alex Arreaza, a lawyer for injured student Anthony Borges, recently told USA Today. "This kid Cruz was a time bomb looking to explode."

As the tension ratchets up, there's plenty at stake. Some Broward parents are demanding an immediate return to the kind of zero-tolerance policies that led to the schools-to-prison pipeline, while the Trump administration has seized on the Parkland shooting to scale back similar Obama-era school reforms nationwide.

As he faces down increasingly heated town-hall crowds, Runcie vehemently denies his reforms had anything to do with Cruz's rampage and says scrapping the once-celebrated reforms would do little to stop future threats. Instead, he says, such a move would have far-reaching consequences for any child who makes a mistake in school and is no longer given a second chance.

"The program is successful," he says. "It's working for kids. Why would we want to change this because of misinformation that's being perpetuated on social media? It's not based on facts."

As a child in Jamaica, Runcie lived in a modest home with a tin roof and an outhouse.
Courtesy of the Runcie Family

In 1969, an 8-year-old Bob Runcie was sitting with his mother on the porch of their home in Poughkeepsie, New York, when a burst of bullets shattered the quiet Saturday. His mom, who had been reading her Bible, was struck in the face. She spent three weeks in the hospital, says Runcie, who stayed with strangers down the street while she recovered and his dad worked long hours on a construction site.

In Runcie's telling, the shooter later told police he opened fire because he was tired of watching immigrants come over and take all the jobs. The Runcie family, who had immigrated to the States from Jamaica two years earlier, rarely talked about what happened.

"I just sucked it up," Runcie says. "Go to school, put on a mask."

Many years later, that experience would stay on his mind as he tried to navigate the Broward County school district through an enormous loss. But at the time, a young Bob Runcie just pressed on, balancing that the cruel introduction to his adopted country with the boundless opportunities he found here.

Born to a sugarcane farmer and a stay-at-home mother in rural Perth Town, Jamaica, Robert Wellington Runcie had no formal schooling in his early years. The Runcies lived in a modest home with a tin roof and an outhouse. Bob, the oldest child, spent his days milking cows, collecting eggs, and wandering the family's expansive property; meticulous even in childhood, he always came home as clean as he had left. His life might have turned out differently if not for a chance encounter at a Jamaican port, when an American businessman offered his father a job at his construction company in New York.

"The man told him, 'I can tell by the calluses on your hand that you're a hard worker,'" Runcie told the Miami Herald in 2011. "That was the job interview, a handshake."

Runcie was sitting with his mother when a burst of bullets shattered the quiet Saturday.

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Runcie's father, who started working when he was 12 years old, took the job, setting off alone and sending money back home. Two years later, in 1967, the rest of the family moved into an apartment in Poughkeepsie. Six-year-old Bob had to repeat the first grade, but within a few years, he was excelling at school. Though his parents never attended school past third grade, they emphasized the importance of a good education and moved to Hyde Park because of its better schools.

"I think my father felt like it was one of his misgivings in life he wasn't really able to get an education because he had to go to work," says James Runcie, Robert's younger brother. "I think he always felt like if he had gotten an education, maybe he could have sort of done more or accomplished more — even though what he did was amazing, being able to go to another country and make a life."

The Runcies were deeply religious, refusing to even leave the house during the Sabbath. They read constantly — the newspaper, the Bible, Popular Mechanics. They kept their home stocked with books and magazines, including the medical journal Grey's Anatomy, which Bob pored over. At Roosevelt High, he was known as a serious student and disciplined athlete who would leave basketball practice only to add in a six- or seven-mile run. "It would just amaze us," teammate James Geiger recalls. "We'd be tired, some of our friends and his brother would be tired of playing basketball, and he would go run. It's like, 'OK, Bob.'"

Everywhere he went, he lugged along books. The habit drew attention at the public basketball court where the Runcie brothers spent long afternoons playing pick-up games. "We'd be climbing trees, throwing rocks, acting like we were jet-skiing or something," says Jerome Elting, who remembers Bob being a "nerd." "He'd be sitting around reading a publication of some kind. That's just who he was."

During his senior year at Roosevelt High, Bob's basketball team won the state championship and his classmates voted him most likely to succeed. In the photo on the yearbook's superlatives page, he's looking away from the camera, a serious expression on his face.

Though he'd planned to attend community college, teachers pushed Bob to apply to elite schools. He was accepted to all of them and landed at Harvard because it offered the most financial aid.

There, he studied economics and met an English major named Diana who would become his wife. The couple graduated in 1984 and later moved to Diana's hometown, Chicago. They married, bought a house in Hyde Park, and started a family. Runcie earned an MBA at Northwestern and worked as a consultant at Arthur Andersen before starting his own management and technology firm.

He didn't set out for a career in education. But in 2003, an old Harvard classmate called: Arne Duncan was a few years younger and had been a forward on the school's basketball team. The two occasionally played pick-up, and Duncan faced off a few times against Bob's brother James, a guard on Holy Cross' team. Now Duncan was superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, and he needed someone to overhaul the district's technology department.

"I don't know what kind of pay cut he took — I never asked," Duncan says, "but I would conclude it was substantial. To have him come work with us and just kind of rekindle that friendship, that just says everything about his values and his character."

Runcie figured he'd stay a few years and then go back to consulting. Instead, he spent almost a decade with the school system, sticking around even after Duncan became President Barack Obama's secretary of education in 2009.

Runcie says the stubbornly high dropout rates, coupled with the gulf between low-income students and their better-off peers, persuaded him to stay in education. Encouraged by Duncan, he began picturing a future leading a district.

"His former business partners were calling me saying, 'Diana, tell Bob he needs to get back over here because he's never going to make millions in the public sector,'" his wife says. "So I looked at him, and he was happier than ever. I said, 'I guess we'll never have millions.'"

When Broward began searching for a new superintendent in 2011, Runcie's business background stood out. The scandal-scarred district was still reeling from a bruising grand jury report a year earlier that had uncovered millions in wasted taxpayer dollars and rampant corruption. Some board members fretted over Runcie's lack of classroom experience, but many believed the district needed radical change.

On September 14, 2011, they offered Runcie the job. Community members praised the hiring of the once-segregated district's first permanent black superintendent, and Runcie, who agreed to a $275,000 salary, pledged to work "24/7, 365 days a year" for its students.

"The experience I've had going through the public education system has solidified for me that this is the place where everybody has the opportunity to level the playing field," he said after his selection. "I know if I was able to do that, then every student in this district can do the same."

He and his wife Diana are the parents of three grown daughters.
Courtesy of the Runcie Family

One by one, top brass from across Broward County's criminal justice system made their way to a lectern at the front of school board chambers in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Each used a pen emblazoned with the all-caps word "PROMISE" to sign an agreement that completely reinvented discipline in the county's schools. Then they handed the pen to a student who had already benefited from the changes.

"Taj does not belong in the juvenile justice system," said State Attorney Mike Satz, putting his arm around the elementary-aged student standing beside him. "And if you doubt it, just spend a few minutes talking to Taj and you will see. And there's thousands and thousands of other kids in Broward County just like Taj."

Applause broke out in the packed room when Runcie took the floor and told the crowd "our goal, our focus, is to educate, not incarcerate."

Runcie calls the November 5, 2013 ceremony one of the proudest days of his life. Though some law enforcement officers found fault with the changes, the initiative soon made Runcie an acclaimed leader both locally and nationally and received widespread praise — until Cruz's rampage dragged the initiative into the limelight.

After moving south from Chicago, Runcie established himself as a low-key leader who kept copies of The Economist in the lobby outside his tenth-floor office. He weathered some turbulence as he moved quickly on sweeping changes. Weeks of delayed buses, stranded students, and outraged parents followed Runcie's efforts to reshape the transportation system, while his decision to save money by switching to seven-period schedules led to a special magistrate determining the district violated teacher contracts. But Runcie's cost-shaving paid off in other ways: Most of the thousand teachers laid off before his arrival were rehired, and previously eliminated classes such as music and art were reinstated.

Runcie found his signature issue in an effort local NAACP President Marsha Ellison and criminal justice officials had been waging for years. The group wanted to address the fact that a disproportionate number of minority students were being arrested at school. Nationwide, evidence mounted that the zero-tolerance policies ushered in by the War on Drugs and the Columbine shooting were feeding many students into a spiral of prison and joblessness.

In fact, it was the GOP-led Florida Legislature that helped force a change. In 2009, Tallahassee passed a bill directing districts to quit arresting kids for minor misconduct and misdemeanors.

"When a youth gets into the juvenile justice system, everybody thinks their sins are forgiven when that youth turns 18," said bill sponsor Sen. Stephen Wise, a Republican from Jacksonville. "I will assure you that doesn't happen. It's a blemish on their record."

Two years after Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill, Broward County still had 1,062 school-based arrests — the most of any district in the state. A big believer in data, Runcie met with Ellison's group and immediately dug into the numbers. The data was striking: Black Broward students made up 70 percent of the arrests despite accounting for only 40 percent of enrollment. And more than 70 percent of the arrests were for misdemeanors. In some cases, students were handcuffed and hauled away for shooting spitballs or yelling in class. To Runcie, it was obvious the district was denying those students any chance of learning from their minor mistakes.

"We can only measure our success by the kids we keep out of jail, not the kids we put in jail."

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So district leaders worked with prosecutors, the sheriff, the public defender's office, and others to come up with a plan. They agreed that principals should resolve the vast majority of student infractions without cops; police would still have discretion to step in anytime, though, and all felonies would automatically go to police. The agreement also created the Promise program, which would offer counseling and other services in an alternative school for students who committed more serious misdemeanors such as bullying and fighting. The idea was simple: Fix the underlying issues that caused the problems so students could stay in school, graduate, and get jobs.

"We as a community can only measure our success by the kids we keep out of jail, not the kids we put in jail," Israel said after signing the agreement.

Not everyone was convinced it was the right move. Some cops feared they'd lose track of gang members, repeat offenders, and kids on probation. The president of the Broward County Victim's Rights Coalition, Bridgette Schneiderman, worried victims were being left out. Prosecutors, despite backing the changes, became concerned that students involved in serious fights might be wrongly funneled into Promise. A year into the agreement, one prosecutor said she'd heard of students who were sent to the program instead of being arrested even after hospitalizing kids in fights.

But overall, the program was trumpeted as an historic, much-needed reform. And in 2015, Duncan, Obama's secretary of education, pointed to his old friend's district as a national role model and invited Runcie to speak at a White House panel called "Rethink School Discipline." Obama's administration issued a directive warning districts they might be violating federal civil rights laws if they disproportionately disciplined minority students. Grant money was tied to addressing the problem.

"Some of my staff joke that the Obama administration might have taken our policies and framework and developed them into national guidelines," Runcie told Scholastic in 2014.

To Runcie, the data soon backed up his convictions that the program was working. In Broward, school arrests declined sharply from 1,062 in 2012 to 392 in 2016, while overall juvenile arrests fell from 7,271 to 4,466. Ninety percent of students in the Promise program, meanwhile, didn't repeat their bad behavior at school. And there was little evidence that more serious crimes were going unreported: Infractions such as battery, robbery, and weapons possession remained the same, at 6,500.

On October 5, 2016, local officials again filled a Broward County School Board meeting for a celebratory signing ceremony. This time, additional law enforcement agencies were joining the agreement, along with the Broward County Chiefs of Police Association. The crowded room was jubilant.

"Mr. Runcie, I just want to take my hat off to you and the entire school board," Israel said from the lectern.

Added board member Robin Bartleman: "We are proud to announce that we now rank 61 out of 67 counties in Florida when it comes to school-related arrests. We need to be proud of that."

Photo by Ian Witlen / TheCameraClicks.com

Family members wheeled Anthony Borges into a Plantation Sheraton's beige conference room packed with a gaggle of reporters. The soccer-obsessed teen wore an FC Barcelona jersey that hung loosely over his thin frame. His legs, which were still healing from the bullets that tore through his classroom door, were propped up.

The 15-year-old freshman had just been released from the intensive care unit, where he'd spent more than a month in and out of a medically induced coma. He was still too weak to talk at length. Instead, his attorney, Alex Arreaza, read a statement.

"I want to thank both of you for visiting me in the hospital," Arreaza said, addressing Runcie and Israel. "But I also want to say that both of you failed us students and parents and teachers alike on so many levels."

Arreaza soon blasted the program he specifically blamed: Runcie's reformed discipline system, which allowed Cruz to "blossom" into a rampaging madman, the lawyer argued.

Borges' appearance on April 6 was one of the most stinging public criticisms of the superintendent over the Stoneman Douglas shooting, and it also signaled a change. As Israel faced withering attacks over his deputies' performances before and during the massacre, Runcie was mostly praised for working with the #NeverAgain student activists to demand gun reform and reject Trump's calls to arm teachers. But now the superintendent would have to face increasingly harsh judgment.

The day of the shooting, Runcie arrived at Stoneman Douglas around 4 p.m. So many roads were closed around the school that he eventually got out and walked there. Squinting into the afternoon sun, he told reporters on the scene: "It is a day you pray, every day that I get up, that we'll never have to see."

Dusk was settling by the time he was allowed on campus. Standing outside the freshman building during a briefing with police, Runcie peered through a window. Inside, he saw bodies still lying on the bloodied hallway floor.

That night, he got home around midnight. "My poor babies," he said to his wife before getting into bed for a sleepless few hours. By 6:30 a.m., he was back at Stoneman Douglas, where he would work every day for several weeks.

"Both of you failed us students and parents and teachers alike on so many levels."

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Runcie had never taken a stand on gun control, but it seemed like common sense to demand a change. As is often the case with the data-focused superintendent, numbers played a role: He knew surveys have repeatedly found backing for what he calls common-sense gun reforms, including 90 percent of Americans supporting universal background checks. "We need a better system," he told Meet the Press February 18.

When Douglas students created the #NeverAgain movement, Runcie was quick to laud them. He spoke at the jam-packed rally outside Fort Lauderdale's federal courthouse where Emma Gonzalez's cries of "We call B.S.!" catapulted her to fame; praised the students in interviews; and attended the March for Our Lives in D.C. "He became like a proud papa," Diana Runcie says.

Conservative media noted the superintendent's growing clout. And soon they latched on to a new theory of the problem revealed by Cruz's massacre: not easy access to weapons of war, but Runcie's disciplinary reforms.

The idea caught fire on the right. On February 28, Breitbart trumpeted that Florida's firebrand House Speaker Richard Corcoran blamed an "Obama-Era 'No Arrest Policy'" for "shielding" Cruz. On March 5, the Washington Times wrote that "Obama Policies to End 'Schoolhouse-to-Jailhouse Pipeline' Helped Keep Nikolas Cruz Off Police Radar." Rush Limbaugh went even further, exclaiming, "How Obama and Holder Changed Broward County Law Enforcement for Racial Reasons." Their argument: Runcie's reforms had allowed the troubled Cruz to escape arrest over earlier school misconduct and helped him avoid a felony conviction that might have blocked him from buying a gun.

The concept gained even more traction March 1, when Sen. Marco Rubio slammed the Promise program on the Senate floor. Rubio botched the program's details, incorrectly claiming it forced teachers to take five other steps before telling police about violent threats. (Serious, violent incidents always required an immediate call to police, according to the policy.)

On right-wing TV, talking heads took the cue. That same night, with a backdrop featuring photos of Runcie, Israel, and Attorney General Eric Holder over the words "Broken Promise," Laura Ingraham blasted the district's discipline system. "Broward schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, Sheriff Israel, and the Obama bureaucrats that created this perverse incentive to hide student criminality or downplay it have a lot of explaining to do," she said. "By turning Broward schools and those across the nation into these social justice petri dishes, they may have facilitated a lunatic."

The superintendent was stunned by the conservative broadsides against a program that, after all, had all started with the GOP in Tallahassee. The attacks were in bad faith, he thought, and ignored much more obvious problems in Florida's gun laws. In particular, he was miffed with Rubio, who didn't speak with him before blasting Promise. (Rubio later tweeted a semi-mea culpa, saying that after learning more, he believed it wasn't the program at fault, but "the way it is being applied.")

"This is a false narrative that's being made for whatever agenda it might be," Runcie said.

The full truth is much harder to pin down because the district refuses to release Cruz's education records, citing federal privacy laws. Without those documents, there's no way to know how the district's policies might have affected his punishments when he was caught breaking the rules. The district has commissioned an outside review, due to be finished in June. Runcie says he won't discuss the specifics of Cruz's case until it's released.

In the meantime, misinformation about Promise continues spreading as fast as an InfoWars tweet. Runcie has said Cruz was never enrolled in Promise, but conservatives keep suggesting the program let him off the hook. Others insist Runcie actually pushed the reforms to get federal grants, but Broward's changes predated Obama's guidance tying funding to disciplinary changes. Some critics still insist the changes meant that cops stationed inside schools lost the ability to arrest students for felonies, which is not true.

Runcie has been frustrated with the attacks, which he says distract from real issues such as lackluster mental health care and widespread access to guns. But he won't back down from his reforms.

"We're not going to dismantle a program that's been successful in the district because of false information that's been out there," he insists.

In a Broward County high-school auditorium charged with raw emotion, two long lines of parents and students faced Runcie, district administrators, and the school board. When they reached the microphone, they lambasted them for failing to keep students safe in a post-Columbine world as the near-capacity room erupted with raucous applause.

"You had 19 years, and you failed," said an angry Michelle Rosen, whose daughter attends Stoneman Douglas. "No one said after Columbine, 'Holy crap, we should do something to make sure this doesn't happen to our kids.'"

The April 18 forum at Plantation High School laid bare the community's simmering frustration. The event was often interrupted by yelling, with administrators' responses sometimes rankling the crowd even more. Speakers attacked Runcie for not doing enough about security, for "dancing around every question," and, at one point, for his lips supposedly not moving during the Pledge of Allegiance.

The tense meeting was another sign of the growing frustration with Runcie and his reforms. Several speakers demanded an end to the Promise program and his other disciplinary changes and claimed the district is deliberately harboring dangerous students. As the district defends the overhaul against roiling local crowds, a national conservative movement is mounting against the Obama-era directives that sought to end the schools-to-prison pipeline.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee March 20, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, argued that Broward's attempts to cut down on student arrests allowed Cruz to slip through the cracks.

"To prevent school violence and future tragedies, we must let our teachers, who love and care for their students, exercise their own best judgment once again," said the longtime critic of the Obama administration's disciplinary reforms.

A recent report from the Chicago-based news site RealClearInvestigations, which Rubio shared with his millions of followers on Twitter, has added fuel to the fire. "I don't want high school students unnecessarily arrested for school misconduct & support goal of eliminating racial disparities in school discipline," the senator wrote. "But not addressing repeated violence & threats is not the answer." The article reported that serious crimes had spiked among Broward County juveniles in the years since the disciplinary reforms went into effect. During the forum, several angry parents pointed to the story.

But New Times' review of Department of Juvenile Justice records shows the report left out some important context. For instance, the authors note that murder and manslaughter arrests "jumped 150 percent" between 2013 and 2016, which is true — but it neglects to mention the tiny sample size. The number of murders went from four to ten. The story also leaves out the fact that they fell again to six in 2017. Crimes that saw declines, including attempted murder or manslaughter, sexual battery, other sex offenses, aggravated assault, and overall felonies, also go unmentioned.

The article does highlight one potentially serious problem with Broward's disciplinary policy, though: Some teachers and administrators could be misinterpreting it and sending students involved in serious, violent fights to Promise instead of police. At least one lawsuit lends credence to the concern. Jayla Cofer landed in the emergency room after a March 2016 attack by her peers at New Renaissance Middle, according to a complaint her mother filed later that year. Despite the severity of Cofer's injuries, Miramar Police spokesperson Tania Rues told the Sun Sentinel no arrests were made. Instead, the school handled the incident through the Pine Ridge Education Center, which houses Promise. The lawsuit has since been settled. At the Plantation forum, two teenage girls from Charles W. Flanagan High also claimed a classmate who used a knife to threaten students returned to school after a suspension.

"I'm extremely upset sitting up here and hearing that this has occurred at the school," Runcie responded. "And it doesn't sound like the appropriate action has been taken."

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, says the district's 13,000 teachers have mixed opinions about the program. Though she supports it, she's concerned some teachers feel pressured to write up fewer students.

"We do have sort of an unspoken type of rule out there that certain administrators or schools frown upon teachers doing any kind of documentation when students are showing any type of misbehaviors," she says. "I think the ones that discourage reporting don't understand restorative justice."

"I find it really difficult to believe that one single adult would prefer kids be in jail over being in school."

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Runcie tells New Times that if the discipline system is creating a problem, "we need to own it, and we need to fix it immediately." But he doesn't believe there are any systemic issues — instead, he says that in a district with 270,000 students, there may be a small number of case-by-case situations his administration needs to discuss with school leaders.

For now, school board members, the sheriff, and teachers' groups have mostly stood by the reforms. Most have praised Runcie's leadership post-Parkland. And backers of Promise and Runcie's other changes are already lining up for a major fight to defend the programs. After Rubio's Senate speech, the NAACP promised "any reform that seeks to repeal these efforts will be vehemently opposed."

Duncan, the former education secretary, also says Parkland shouldn't be an excuse to usher back in zero-tolerance policies. "Nothing is perfect," he says. "Things can be tweaked, but the idea of working with kids who are struggling rather than putting them out on the streets, giving them the support they need, paying attention — that's what we all need to be doing."

Broward School Board member Rosalind Osgood, whose district includes many minority students and enrolls the largest number of Promise participants, says parents with children in the program have contacted her office worried they will now be arrested. She says eliminating the program because of Cruz's crimes makes no sense.

"I find it really difficult to believe that one single adult would prefer kids be in jail over being in school," she says.

At the forum in Plantation, two of the 1,600 students enrolled in Promise this year showed up to stand up for the program. Breon Aurelus, who is 17, took the mike to thank Runcie for the program, saying he'd just graduated after a getting caught for a misdemeanor at school. He later told New Times that he thinks those criticizing Promise are "just listening to what's on the internet — they don't even have the experience of attending the school." If Promise goes away, he added, "a lot of kids would be going in jail for minor things."

A man approached Aurelus to thank him for speaking. He said attacks on the program, which his brother attended, are unfair.

"I really appreciate you telling your personal story, being brave in front of all those people... I hope it changed a lot of people's minds," he said.

As Runcie's signature achievement faces deepening anger, a small number of critics have gone as far as calling for his job. Last month, a member of the Parkland Education Advisory Board demanded his resignation over the mass shooting and the Promise program. But in a show of how politically charged the issue has become, that member, attorney Wayne Alder, later left the board after comparing #NeverAgain activist David Hogg to a Nazi on Twitter. (Asked about the turmoil, Runcie's wife noted there are many districts that "would love to have him.")

At the end of the tumultuous school-safety forum, which went an hour over schedule so everyone could be heard, the superintendent had just one request: patience.

"I know this continues to be a very difficult time for this community," he said. "The grief, the recovery, the anger — it's going to be a journey that we go through. It's not going to happen overnight. I ask for your patience, I ask for your collaboration, your input. I ask for some grace."

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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas