Florida School Superintendent Arrested on Perjury Charge

Florida School Superintendent Arrested on Perjury Charge

Author Patricia Mazzei
This post originally appeared on NYT > U.S. News

MIAMI — The superintendent of the public school district in Broward County, Fla., was arrested on Wednesday as part of a wide-ranging criminal investigation that began in the tumultuous months after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland.

Robert W. Runcie, the superintendent, was charged with perjury, a felony, for lying to a grand jury that was impaneled to investigate “possible failures in following school-related safety laws and mismanaging funds solicited for school safety initiatives,” according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The authorities also arrested Barbara J. Myrick, the district’s general counsel. She was charged with unlawful disclosure of statewide grand jury proceedings, which is also a felony. Both Mr. Runcie, 59, and Ms. Myrick, 72, were released shortly after they were booked into jail.

The two high-profile arrests are the latest turmoil to surround Broward County’s top leaders since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 students and employees dead and 17 others wounded in 2018 and led to a national wave of activism to curb gun violence. Florida tightened gun laws and introduced school safety requirements after the shooting — and allowed some teachers to carry guns in school.

In Broward County, the shooting cast a long shadow over the sheriff’s office for its botched response to the massacre, and the school district for how it had previously dealt with the suspect, Nikolas Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student, and other students with troubling behavior in school. (Mr. Cruz is in jail awaiting trial for capital murder.)

In a statement, lawyers for Mr. Runcie said he would plead not guilty and continue in his role as superintendent. They said that Mr. Runcie had “fully cooperated” with law enforcement during the grand jury’s investigation, and that the indictment against him “does not shed any light on what false statement is alleged to have been made.”

“It is a sad day in Broward County and across Florida when politics become more important than the interests of our students,” the lawyers said.

Ms. Myrick did not respond to a request for comment.

The families of some of the school shooting victims have sued the sheriff’s office and the school district, claiming negligence and seeking potentially millions of dollars in damages. Some of the families also led an unsuccessful attempt to have Mr. Runcie fired. The school board now includes two victims’ relatives: Lori Alhadeff, who lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, and Debra Hixon, who lost her husband, Christopher, who had been the athletic director at Stoneman Douglas.

Tony Montalto, the president of Stand With Parkland, a group of some of the families, said in a statement on Wednesday that the families were grateful for the grand jury’s work.

“The grand jury is doing its job by holding the people who are responsible for the safety of our children and staff members accountable,” said Mr. Montalto, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Gina, in the shooting. “We know that Mr. Runcie’s poor leadership contributed to the Parkland tragedy.”

Former Sheriff Scott J. Israel, a Democrat, was removed from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, shortly after the governor took office in 2019. Mr. Israel ran for sheriff again last year and lost to Gregory Tony, whom Mr. DeSantis had appointed to take Mr. Israel’s place.

Separate from its investigation into the school district, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also investigating Sheriff Tony, according to court records. That inquiry stems from revelations during last year’s campaign that Mr. Tony, a Democrat, had shot and killed a man as a teenager in Philadelphia and lied on an affidavit to become sheriff.

Broward County Public Schools, the nation’s sixth-largest district, has a long history of mismanagement and corruption scandals, many of them related to school construction. More than a decade ago, a school board member served prison time after taking bribes from undercover agents posing as contractors.

The latest arrests are related to a grand jury born after Mr. DeSantis requested it in February 2019.

“As the one-year anniversary of one of the darkest days in Florida history approaches, it’s clear more needs to be done,” he said in a statement at the time.

A state commission also investigated the shooting and has continued to meet periodically.

In January, the authorities arrested Tony Hunter, the district’s former chief information officer. The grand jury, which is based in Broward County, charged him with bid tampering and unlawful compensation by a public official after he was accused of steering a $ 17 million technology contract to a friend. He has pleaded not guilty.

The grand jury was impaneled to investigate possible wrongdoing in school districts statewide, including if refusal or failure to follow school safety laws put students at risk; if districts have committed fraud by accepting state funds conditioned on safety measures without putting them into place; and if districts have diverted funds from bonds for school safety for other purposes.

The grand jury was also empowered to investigate where districts are “systematically underreporting” incidents of criminal activity in schools, a contention some parents of Parkland students made after the shooting. Mr. Runcie, who was hired by the school board in 2011, had championed ending so-called zero tolerance policies that resulted in the suspensions and expulsions of many students of color.

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