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Does Broward Schools' Program Coddle Troubled Students and Excuse Dangerous Behavior?

February 28, 2018 - 6:00am
Dazed students outside Douglas High School after the shooting
Dazed students outside Douglas High School after the shooting

We know the FBI made mistakes. We know the Broward Sheriff's Department made mistakes. What is yet to emerge is the role the Broward County school system played in the Valentine's Day shooting death of 14 students and three teachers at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.

As progressives continue the push for more gun control, a Broward County disciplinary program they long have favored is now getting more scrutiny. 

The PROMISE program (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education) was initiated by the Broward County School District in 2013 after a similar program had been implemented in Miami-Dade County. 

The idea was that “minor misbehavior” by students should not result in an arrest if a student can be dealt with in some other way. These types of programs were also championed by the Obama administration, which encouraged efforts to reduce the "school-to-prison pipeline," particularly for minority students.

Many in the community have asked how many of suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz's offenses while at Stoneman Douglas rose to the level of felonies and why they didn't end with him in handcuffs? While the Broward County School Board has been mum on much of Cruz’s disciplinary history, the PROMISE program may be the culprit.

Back in 2013, Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie was looking for a way to lower the student arrest rate. According to District data, 1,062 Broward County students were arrested in the 2011-2012 school year, the highest number in the state of Florida. Seventy-one percent of those arrests were for misdemeanor offenses.

Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie
Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie

So, the Broward County School Board sought to take some of those misdemeanor offenses out of the equation. Rather than involve law enforcement, minor infractions would instead be handled within the school system, driving down the arrest rate -- making for a less "troubled" school system.

A document filed in 2016 lays out exactly how this would work. The agreement was made between the Broward County School Board, the State Attorney’s Office, and several law enforcement organizations, including the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. The document lists several misdemeanors to be handled through the PROMISE program rather than the criminal justice system. Some examples are disorderly conduct, gambling and marijuana possession. Others listed include harassment and threats, of which Cruz has been accused.

If a student is found to commit any of those violations, even by a police officer or sheriff’s deputy, the program dictates the student should be dealt with by the school system. That could result in school-mandated punishment, a meeting with parents, or a simple warning. This can happen up to four times per school year before a student is referred to law enforcement.

By some measures, the program was a success. The arrest rate did drop, and district data showed 90 percent of students did not repeat their bad behavior after going through the PROMISE program.

Cruz, however, may be proof one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel. He showed a behavior pattern that could have been cause for arrest long before Feb. 14. Reports of fighting and and assault are vague and may have only qualified as misdemeanors. But according to Buzzfeed, Cruz was also accused of cyberstalking and sending threatening messages online and in person while he was a student at Stoneman Douglas. These could have resulted in felony charges under federal law.

The PROMISE program purportedly treats felonies and other acts that “pose a serious threat to school safety” differently. But even in those situations, the program does not mandate a student be arrested. Instead, an officer may consider placing the student under arrest. That is, the officer may also decide not to put the student under arrest, even in the event of a felony.

Here is a major failing of the system: Had Cruz been adjudicated even in juvenile court for a felony, he would have been prohibited from owning a firearm until he was 24 years of age. Even a misdemeanor hearing could have resulted in a court mandating mental health counseling, which could also force Cruz to give up his weapons. And obviously, if he was sitting in a prison cell, he would have been prevented from carrying out the deadly shooting at his former high school.

Sunshine State News reached out to the Broward County School Board for comment on whether the PROMISE Program will be reviewed and evaluated but did not receive a reply. Without further comment from the School Board or Stoneman Douglas, it’s not clear whether Cruz was shielded through the PROMISE program or the "system" dropped the ball in some other way. Stoneman Douglas did ask for a threat assessment after the alleged assault, and Cruz was eventually moved to another school. But as many search for answers as to why Cruz’s previous bad deeds did not end in an arrest, this program is likely to receive more scrutiny.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel voiced support for the PROMISE program in a recent interview with Jake Tapper, calling it an “excellent program.” But he also said law enforcement needs more authority to arrest people -- students included -- when warranted.

That sentiment was echoed by Jeff Bell, head of the Broward Sheriff's Office Deputies Association. In an interview with Laura Ingraham, Bell said he supports the intent behind the PROMISE program but says it isn’t perfect. “Nobody wants to fill the jails with juveniles ... The problem is, when that program started, we took all discretion away from law enforcement officers to effect an arrest if we choose to.” 

SSN spoke to Bell following that interview. He repeated those concerns, saying officers should have more authority to decide whether to arrest a student, rather than allowing schools the final say.

Defenders of the program likely will say one possible mistake does not invalidate the entire thinking behind the program. 

In a 2015 Sun Sentinel story detailing some successes of the PROMISE program, Maria Schneider, head of the juvenile unit in the Broward State Attorney’s Office, is quoted as saying, “We’ve accomplished reducing the arrests. Now it’s ‘how do we keep that up without making the schools a more dangerous place.’?" 

It will be up to Broward County School Board members and other officials to determine what role the PROMISE program played in the Parkland tragedy, and whether schools are more dangerous because of it.


Ryan Nicol, a freelance writer living in Sunrise, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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