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Records: Superintendent lied to jury investigating massacre

TERRY SPENCER
·4 min read
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The superintendent of the Florida school district where 17 students and staff died in a 2018 high school massacre was arrested Wednesday after investigators said he lied to a grand jury investigating events surrounding the shooting.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie was arrested by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement at district headquarters and charged with perjury in an official proceeding, which is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

According to an indictment issued by the grand jury last week and released after Runcie’s arrest, the superintendent lied when he testified before the panel three weeks ago, but it gave no specifics about the alleged falsehood. The jury is investigating whether districts are following school safety laws, including those implemented after the Feb. 14, 2018, slayings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

The grand jury, which was empaneled two years ago, is also investigating whether:

— Public agencies are using state safety grants for other purposes.

— Broward school officials misappropriated millions of dollars from a bond measure partially aimed at improving campus safety. 

— Officials intentionally underreported on-campus crimes committed by students. Since the shooting, Runcie and district administrators have been accused by critics of lying about school crime rates and discipline problems.

To prove perjury, prosecutors must show Runcie knew his statements to the grand jury were false and not just a mistake.

Attorneys for Runcie, 59, released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying he plans to plead not guilty.

“We are confident that he will be exonerated and he intends to continue to carry out his responsibilities with the highest level of integrity and moral standards, as he has done for nearly ten years in his role as Superintendent,” the statement said.

Jail records show Runcie has been released on his own recognizance.

Rosalind Osgood, chair of the Broward County school board, issued a statement Wednesday saying the district “will provide transparency, accountability and integrity."

The statement did not say whether Runcie has been suspended and the district's media relations office did not immediately know the answer to that question. Broward County is the nation’s sixth-largest school district with more than 270,000 students.

Tony Montalto, president of the group that represents Stoneman Douglas victims’ families, said Wednesday he is “thankful” that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the grand jury investigation into Runcie and the district.

“It is important that we get the facts about what happened and then hold those responsible accountable and implement positive change,” said Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting.

Also arrested Wednesday was Barbara Myrick, the school district’s attorney. Myrick, 72, is accused of unlawfully disclosing grand jury proceedings, a felony. Her indictment also didn't disclose details. It was unclear whether she has an attorney who could comment. One Broward administrator was previously arrested on charges that he rigged contracts with vendors and accepted bribes. He has pleaded not guilty.

Runcie and Scott Israel, then the county sheriff, became the public face for Broward County's response to the shooting, both in mourning and then in criticism for their handling of the aftermath.

DeSantis removed Israel from office days after his inauguration in January 2019 under his authority to discipline elected local officials, but said he couldn't touch Runcie because he was appointed by the Broward County school board.

Runcie’s supporters have praised him for increasing the district’s graduation rate, improving schools districtwide and reaching out to minority communities. He came into the national spotlight after the massacre when some parents criticized him for programs they felt had been lenient toward the shooter.

Runcie, by a 6-3 vote, survived a 2019 motion before the school board that sought to have him removed. The attempt was led by member Lori Alhadef, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the shooting.

Alhadef said in a statement that she has asked district staff to examine how board policies pertain to Runcie’s and Myrick’s arrests.

“As more specific details come to light, I will act accordingly, in the best interests of the students and staff,” she said.

The superintendent’s critics said crimes, bullying and other school problems were routinely underreported by Stoneman Douglas and other district schools and few did voluntary security assessments. Stoneman Douglas reported zero incidents of bullying among its 3,200 students between 2014 and 2017 and three incidents of vandalism, for example.

Another target of criticism has been the district’s Promise Program, a student disciplinary system Runcie instituted shortly after he became superintendent. Under Promise, students who fight or commit petty vandalism, theft, harassment or other minor crimes, are referred to an off-campus site for up to 10 days instead of the courts.

Critics say Promise created a lenient atmosphere that allowed shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz to briefly attend Stoneman Douglas a year before the massacre despite a history of fights, threats and behavioral problems. The district says while the program needed changes, it was a success overall.

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Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.