FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - 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.

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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 last week as a result of information revealed by the state commission, but the district refused to say exactly what the employees did wrong.

"Obviously it seems to me there were multiple failures in the system," said longtime businessman John Daly Sr. of Coral Springs, who with a few others started the activist group Concerned Citizens of Broward County in response to what they considered security lapses. "And basically it looked, more or less, like a cover-up, because they weren't forthcoming about how they handled the situation."

Superintendent Robert Runcie stresses that the school district has made no attempt to conceal information except when lawyers said it could not be released.

"That can't be characterized _ and should not be characterized _ as the district doesn't want to provide more information," he said. "We work to be as transparent as possible. ... We have nothing to hide."

"There's no conversation anywhere in this district about withholding any information that we can readily provide. I haven't had those conversations. I haven't heard about them."

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Runcie has professed openness from the beginning, but reporters and families of dead children have been denied information time and again.

In May, three months after the shooting, Runcie said: "Look, we want to be as transparent and as clear as possible. ... It's the only way that we're going to get better as a school district, as a society, to make sure that we can put things in place so that these types of tragedies don't happen again."

In March, he said, "We cannot undo the heartbreak this attack has caused in the community, but we can try to understand the conditions that led to such acts in hopes of avoiding them in the future."

That statement came as he announced what he called an "independent, comprehensive assessment" that would be done with "transparency and a sense of urgency."

The review fell short of what he described.

Without taking bids or interviewing consultants, the district let its outside law firm hire Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee, a contractor that had worked for Broward schools before and knew school board attorney Barbara Myrick professionally.

CEN's contract, for $60,000, did not demand the thorough and transparent review that Runcie promised. Rather, it directed the consultant to analyze Cruz's school records, interview educators and keep the details secret. The contract required the consultant to "further assist the client in ongoing litigation matters."

CEN spent several months analyzing one issue: whether Broward schools satisfied the law in the education of Nikolas Cruz, a one-time special education student, or whether "areas of concern" should be addressed. The review made no attempt to assess whether the district adequately protected students or failed to act on Cruz's often-spoken plans for violence. Though Runcie said other agencies would be interviewed, none were.

The report, released in August after a court battle, concluded that the district generally treated Cruz properly. Exactly how, the public could not tell.

With a judge's approval, the district obscured references to Cruz - nearly two-thirds of the text - to protect his privacy under law. Only when the Sun Sentinel obtained and published an uncensored copy did the truth come out: Cruz was deeply troubled; the district improperly withdrew support he needed; he asked for additional services; and the district bungled his request, leaving him spinning without help.

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Startling as those details were, they pale in light of new information obtained by the Sun Sentinel, none of it included in the consultant's report or shared publicly by the school district.

The district was well aware that Cruz, for years, was unstable and possibly murderous:

- "I'm a bad kid. I want to kill," Cruz, now 20 years old, ominously told a teacher in middle school.

- "I strongly feel that Nikolas is a danger to the students and faculty at this school," Cruz's eighth-grade language arts teacher wrote in a behavioral evaluation. "I do not feel that he understands the difference between his violent video games and reality."

Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was murdered at Stoneman Douglas, was angered that the report all but absolved the school district of responsibility.

"I have absolutely no trust that the district has any interest in policing itself," Petty said.

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Aside from legal issues, the school system has considerable reason to be concerned about its reputation, finances and stability.

It is the sixth-largest school system in the country, with more than 270,000 students and a budget of more than $4 billion. Broward County's largest public sector employer, its leadership wields tremendous power and influence, and the community's top businesspeople have been among Runcie's staunchest supporters.

"The business community has confidence in Bob Runcie 100 percent," said Keith Koenig, president of City Furniture and chairman of the Broward Workshop, a nonprofit organization made up of the county's major corporations, including school district vendors and contractors

Koenig credits Runcie with raising graduation rates, scaling down inefficiency, improving productivity, winning an $800 million bond issue in 2014, and passing a property tax increase this past August for teacher raises and school security - a campaign waged as questions about Parkland went unanswered.

Koenig said Runcie "has attorneys telling him what he can and can't do legally," which explains, Koenig said, any hesitance to release information.

School districts nationally have taken similar steps to protect information during crises, experts say.

Even then, she said, most districts would do their own internal reviews to see what mistakes were made.

Broward schools never did. It was five months after the shooting that the school district announced it would launch a thorough investigation into school security and other issues that the consultant CEN was not considering. By then, the state commission was investigating the shooting and asked the district to avoid another review, in order to not interfere with the commission's work.

Elected School Board members have largely fallen into line on secrecy, claiming they have no information or citing litigation and student privacy as reasons not to answer questions.

Longtime board member Robin Bartleman said she doesn't feel comfortable discussing whether mistakes were made with Cruz's schooling, until investigations are complete.

"I don't have all the info, and I don't want to make statements that are erroneous," she said.

School Board member Nora Rupert, who chaired the board for most of 2018, also was cautious.

"As a mom, I would love to sit and talk with anybody who wants to about this," she said, "but litigation puts you in a very funky place."

Still, plenty of people knew that Cruz was bent on violence, but their concerns appear nowhere in the consultant's report.

"Nikolas continues to struggle with displaying appropriate behaviors," a guidance counselor at Stoneman Douglas wrote. "The student was observed writing 'KILL' on a paper."

In February 2016, just weeks after Cruz started full time at Stoneman Douglas, a neighbor reported to the sheriff's office how unhinged he was. Cruz posted online that he planned to "shoot up a school," the neighbor said.

The statement does not appear in the consultant's report; it is not included in Cruz's school files. Instead, the report portrayed the volatile Cruz as a success story at the time. He was "experiencing positive academic progress with only minor behavioral challenges," the report said.