School Climate & Safety

Controversial Discipline Program Not to Blame for Parkland School Shooting, Commission Finds

By Evie Blad — July 10, 2018 2 min read
A makeshift memorial is seen outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 19, where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting on Feb. 14.
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A controversial school discipline program adopted by the Broward County, Fla., district to reduce student arrests cannot be blamed for the shooting by a former student there, a state commission said Tuesday.

But the program does need to be improved, the commission said.

The PROMISE discipline program, created in 2013, required schools to refer students to an alternative disciplinary program instead of law enforcement for a list of non-violent offenses. Gunman Nikolas Cruz, charged with killing 17 people and injuring 17 others in a February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, was referred to the program for three days after he damaged a faucet in a school bathroom at Westglades Middle School, but it is not clear if he attended, the state commission learned.

Some critics of the PROMISE program had suggested that, had Cruz been arrested instead, the infraction would have showed up on his criminal record, eliminating his ability to purchase the AR-15 he used in the attack, the Sun Sentinel reports. Those criticisms added to an already heated national debate on school discipline, centered on Obama-era guidance designed to reduce high arrest and discipline rates for students of color. President Trump later assigned a school safety task force chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos with determining whether that guidance should be rescinded.

But the Florida commission, which includes law enforcement officials from other counties and family members of some of the students killed in the Parkland attack, concluded the PROMISE referral was not connected to the gunman’s access to weapons. Even if Cruz had been arrested for that act of vandalism, he would have been a juvenile first-time offender, which would not have limited his later ability to buy guns, the commission concluded, according to the Sun Sentinel. Cruz was repeatedly disciplined by the district throughout his time as a student there.

“The referral of Cruz to the PROMISE program is inconsequential, as far as this commission is concerned because the evidence is the PROMISE program had no bearing on the outcome, no bearing on Cruz’s ability to buy, possess firearms,” Chairman Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff of Pinellas County, told the Sun Sentinel. “It had no bearing on what he did on Feb. 14, 2018. So it is immaterial. There’s a lot of room for discussion on the PROMISE program and pre-arrest diversion programs in general, but it has no bearing on the outcome here.”

The commission, formed as part of a broad school safety law after the shooting, plans to present recommendations to the state about school-based diversion programs, the Sun Sentinel reports. Among those recommendations: Consistent criteria for diversion programs among Florida’s counties, and requiring discipline records to carry over year-after-year so that students don’t start over with a “first offense” at the beginning of every school year.

The commission plans several days of meetings this week, including a closed-door hearing to learn about the gunman’s mental health history.

Also Tuesday, the commission learned the shooter’s mother, who is now deceased, allowed him to buy his gun over the objections of school counselors who’d warned her about his behavioral problems.

The Parkland School Shooting: Complete Coverage

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.