Ever since the Parkland massacre, the Broward School Board and superintendent Robert Runcie have insisted that the school system did everything possible to help Cruz, who'd been a known violent threat for years. And yet the School Board has also fought tooth-and-nail in court to avoid releasing detailed records about Cruz's time as a Broward student.
The Sun-Sentinel finally took the schools to court for some of Cruz's records, and late last week, two judges agreed the daily could have heavily redacted copies of a consultant's report. But when the Sun-Sentinel got those reports on Friday, they realized the School Board had seriously messed up: The thousands of redacted words could still be read if copy-and-pasted from the PDF into another file.
And those redacted sections, it turned out, did not make Broward Schools look good. They showed that — contrary to Runcie's repeated claims — Cruz had asked for help before leaving Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and was twice failed by the system.
Rather than plead for forgiveness or detail how the school system would change its policies, the School Board has taken another tack: Threatening the Sun-Sentinel and the two reporters who broke the news with criminal contempt of court charges.
In a 94-page filing in the ongoing criminal case against Cruz, the School Board's attorney asks Broward circuit judges Elizabeth Scherer and Patti Englander Henning to hold the Sun-Sentinel and reporters Brittany Wallman and Paula McMahon in contempt of court for publishing the redacted info.
"They opted to report, publicly, information this court had ordered to be redacted," reads the filing from Broward School Board attorney Barbara Myrick. "This is a clear violation of court orders and constitutes contempt of court."
The problem is, the School Board released the redacted info to journalists. And courts have generally held that reporters are allowed to publish newsworthy material as long as they didn't illegally obtain it.
"Before we ran with it, we consulted with our attorneys here and in Chicago," Sun-Sentinel editor in chief Julie Anderson tells New Times. "They advised us we were not breaking laws because the school district put out the information, and anyone could have seen the redacted sections."
In fact, Anderson says, Wallman and McMahon weren't the first to realize the School Board's mistake. After getting the report, which was nearly two-thirds censored, they wrote and posted a story that included an embedded copy of the redacted report. A reader then realized it was possible to read the blacked-out sections and alerted the paper on Facebook, prompting the reporters to quickly write a new version.
Around the same time, Emily Bloch, a Sun-Sentinel reporter who had just worked her last day after being laid off (reminder: Sun-Sentinel owner tronc is extremely awful!), independently realized the same thing and started tweeting out parts of the redacted info. Anderson says the paper didn't see her tweets until after posting their new report.
"Kudos to Emily for finding that," Anderson says. "That shows that anyone with a Word program could have done the same thing our reporters did."
The Sun-Sentinel reporters called Runcie after reading the redacted info. He was surprised they had access to the information, Anderson says, but to her knowledge didn't ask the journalists not to write about it.
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While the consultant's report largely cleared the school district of any culpability in Cruz's massacre, it did uncover two cases where officials failed to follow state and federal laws for helping seriously disabled students like Cruz. When he was taken out of Douglas High in his junior year, the consultant found, the district didn't adequately explain his options, leading Cruz to refuse special education. And when he specifically requested to return to another school for special needs students, the district didn't follow through.
That is the definition of newsworthy information. And whether it violates Cruz's privacy rights to report it, as the district's lawyers argue in their new court filings, the public deserved to know, Anderson says.
"We want the community to have as much information as possible to correct the problem and to minimize the risk of this ever happening again," Anderson says. "There are many issues that need to be solved. It's up to the community to decide what to do, but they need all the information available to make an informed decision."
The judges in Cruz's case have yet to set a hearing date on the School Board's request to hold the paper and reporters in contempt; the Sun-Sentinel's attorneys will soon file their own response in court, Anderson says.