Hide, deny, spin, threaten: How the school district tried to mask failures that led to Parkland shooting

SunSentinel by Brittany WallmanMegan O’Matz and Paula McMahon

November 30, 2018

Immediately after 17 people were murdered inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the school district launched a persistent effort to keep people from finding out what went wrong.

For months, Broward schools delayed or withheld records, refused to publicly assess the role of employees, spread misinformation and even sought to jail reporters who published the truth.

New information gathered by the South Florida Sun Sentinel proves that the school district knew far more than it’s saying about a disturbed former student obsessed with death and guns who mowed down staff and students with an assault rifle on Valentine’s Day.

After promising an honest assessment of what led to the shooting, the district instead hired a consultant whose primary goal, according to school records, was preparing a legal defense. Then the district kept most of those findings from the public.

The district also spent untold amounts on lawyers to fight the release of records and nearly $200,000 to pay public relations consultants who advised administrators to clam up, the Sun Sentinel found.

School administrators insist that they have been as transparent as possible; that federal privacy laws prevent them from revealing the school record of gunman Nikolas Cruz; that discussing security in detail would make schools more dangerous; and that answers ultimately will come when a state commission releases its initial findings about the shooting around New Year’s.

Beyond that, though, the cloak of secrecy illustrates the steps a beleaguered public body will take to manage and hide information in a crisis when reputations, careers and legal liability are at stake.

It also highlights the shortcomings of federal education laws that protect even admitted killers like Cruz who are no longer students. Behind a shield of privacy laws and security secrets, schools can cover up errors and withhold information the public needs in order to heal and to evaluate the people entrusted with their children’s lives.

Nine months after the Parkland shooting, few people have been held accountable — or even identified — for mishandling security and failing to react to signs that the troubled Cruz could erupt. Only two low-level security monitors have been fired.

Three assistant principals and a security specialist were finally transferred out of Stoneman Douglas this week as a result of information revealed by the state commission, but the district refused to say exactly what the employees did wrong.

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