Democracy Dies in Darkness

Post Partisan | Opinion

How Robert Runcie enabled the Parkland generation

August 14, 2018 at 6:01 AM

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/)

Updated at 10 a.m. Wednesday:

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post mischaracterized a debate program in Broward County schools. This post has been updated.

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“This is a big problem that we’ve gotta get our hands around as a country, and start having some real honest conversations about it.”

The “big problem” Robert Runcie is talking about is mass shootings. The Broward County Schools superintendent found himself dealing with one on Feb. 14, when Nikolas Cruz opened fire and killed 17 people inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. “I was able to go by the building where the tragedy occurred and see the horror that was there,” Runcie told me during a live-event recording of the latest episode of “Cape Up” at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30 in Aspen, Colo., “seeing our children and babies that were shot and still bodies on the floor and the hallway.”

But it was the survivors of one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history — the Parkland kids — who turned the tragedy into action.

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Runcie made consequential changes when he became the superintendent of Broward County Schools in 2011. He instituted a debate program in Broward high schools and middle schools. “I will tell you that debate is one of these interdisciplinary opportunities that can be transformative for students,” Runcie said. “It makes the education process relevant and engaging.”

The Parkland kids distinguished themselves not only with their activism, but also with their clear articulation of gun-control issues. This wasn’t by accident. Turns out, last November, the students had debated those very issues. “Some of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students that you’ve seen on the national stage … some of them had participated in the debate program,” noted Runcie, who was very proud of the students and the activism they were able to generate nationwide. “For them to do what they have been doing in the face of their grief, and in [the] face of the challenges that they’ve actually had to witness, and personal attacks each and every day, is a testament to the courage of our kids and what they’re able to do.”

Related: [An open letter to Alfonso Calderon and the kids of Parkland, Fla.]

Runcie also instituted a new disciplinary program called “Promise,” which served as a model for disciplinary changes implemented under former president Barack Obama. For students accused of nonviolent misdemeanor offences, Promise “provide[s] interventions for kids as an alternative to putting them out on the street,” Runcie said. “They would actually go into a program where they were meeting with counselors, social workers. And there [were] specific interactions with them relative to the behavior issue. The whole point was to get to the root cause of what’s causing this child’s behavior.”

Robert Runcie (right), Broward County Schools superintendent, talks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart on the “Cape Up” podcast at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo., June 30. (Dan Bayer/The Aspen Institute/)

There was some confusion about whether Cruz participated in the Promise program. Initially, Runcie said publicly that Cruz had not. By the time we sat down in Aspen, he said Cruz might have been referred to Promise. So I asked him to clear up what was going on. “We reviewed everything that we can,” Runcie said. “We have no evidence that he participated in the Promise program.”

Listen to the podcast to hear Runcie talk more about Promise, that fateful day in February and calls for his resignation.

“I don’t see any reason to entertain that,” said Runcie, who was named 2016 Florida State Superintendent of the Year. “We need to figure out how we can work together as a community to develop some real solutions, not point to a single program or a single individual.”

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Pastor Michael McBride, who works to support young people impacted by gun violence, says while he loves the activism of the Parkland students who organized the March for Our Lives, he wishes adults paid more attention to inner-city gun violence. (Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, James Pace-Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Jonathan Capehart is a member of The Post editorial board, writes for the PostPartisan blog and is host of the "Cape Up" podcast.

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