School Climate & Safety

Why a Revelation About the Parkland School Shooter’s Disciplinary History Matters

By Evie Blad — May 07, 2018 6 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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Leaders of the Broward County, Fla., school district have back tracked on claims that former student Nikolas Cruz, on trial for shooting and killing 17 people at a Parkland high school, never participated in an alternative discipline program there.

Cruz had been referred to the program, called PROMISE, after he vandalized a school restroom in middle school, WLRN reported Sunday.

The revelation has fueled a conversation that started with the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: What, if anything, could the school district have done to prevent the incident? Teachers and students have said Cruz had a known history of behavioral and disciplinary problems, and some community members have asked if the district could have handled them differently.

Some observers, including conservative organizations that have questioned recent national trends in school discipline, have pointed fingers at the PROMISE program, which is meant to limit school-based referrals to police by diverting some students with problematic behaviors to alternative schools for counseling and behavior remediation. If Cruz had been arrested at school, it would have put him on the radar of police, critics of PROMISE argue, and it may have provided them a chance to intervene earlier. Defenders of the program say it’s misguided to blame it for Cruz’s behavior.

Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie has deflected criticisms by saying Cruz wasn’t involved with PROMISE. “Please note, contrary to media reports, the District has no record of Nikolas Cruz committing a PROMISE-eligible infraction or being assigned to PROMISE while in high school,” Runcie said in a statement distributed to the media and to a congressional committee questioning the district’s discipline policies. He repeated the statement in a Sun Sentinel editorial about the PROMISE program. “There’s no connection between Cruz and the district’s Promise program,” Runcie said at one news conference.

WLRN’s revelation that Cruz had been referred to the program before his time at Stoneman Douglas stirred up new criticism about Broward’s discipline policies. Some students and their families wondered if the district was taking their concerns seriously. Others wondered whether the district didn’t report Cruz’s middle school referral because of intentional dishonesty or whether it was an oversight. Here are a few important things to know about PROMISE and Cruz’s referral.

It’s Unclear If Cruz Completed the PROMISE Program

The Broward County district changed its discipline policies in 2013 in response to a state law that called on schools to reduce the “school-to-prison pipeline.” At the time, the district had one of the highest student arrest rates in the state. And, like many other districts, black students were disciplined at higher rates than their peers.

The new policies included a decision-making matrix that was designed to lead to more consistent student discipline by offering specific responses to students’ behavior. That matrix defines what behaviors can spark certain kinds of discipline and when police can intervene. Specifically, it sought to reduce police interactions with students in response to non-violent behaviors. In addition to the matrix, the PROMISE program was designed to respond to more serious behavioral concerns, offering an alternative to referring students to the justice system.

The district said Sunday that Cruz was referred to PROMISE while in middle school, but it is unclear if he ever completed the program.

Some questions to consider:

  • If Cruz hadn’t been referred to PROMISE for the bathroom vandalism, would he have been arrested instead?
  • Should vandalizing a school restroom lead to an arrest? What is the appropriate disciplinary response?
  • If Cruz had been arrested for that offense, would it have made a difference down the road?
  • If it’s determined that Cruz didn’t complete the PROMISE counseling program, is it possible that doing so might have helped prevent future misbehavior?

Cruz Was Disciplined Frequently and Saw Counselors for His Behavior

In the days after the shooting, administrators noted that Cruz was disciplined frequently for his behavior. Disciplinary records leaked to outlets like the Washington Post show he was suspended repeatedly throughout middle school and high school. Local outlets obtained his counseling records and evidence that he was once referred for a threat assessment, which is used to determine if a student may pose a danger to himself or others. It’s unclear if such an assessment was completed.

Also complicating schools’ responses to Cruz’s behavior: He received special education services for a developmental delay, the Sun-Sentinel reports. Federal laws prohibit schools for disciplining students for behavior deemed a manifestation of a recognized disability.

Two investigations should shed more light on how schools and law enforcement handled Cruz and the response to the shooting. The district has hired an outside consultant to review Cruz’s history with the schools and all of the policies that were in place when he was a student there. A report from that investigation is expected in June. And a state task force that includes the parents of several victims has subpoena power to explore the shooting. That task force is expected to issue periodic reports.

What This Means for the Larger School Discipline Debate

Questions about Cruz’s history come as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reviewing Obama-era civil rights guidance on school discipline. That guidance took aim at racial disparities in school discipline and encouraged schools to clarify when law enforcement should be involved in student discipline.

And the Obama administration as a whole encouraged schools to rethink the use of suspensions and expulsions, especially for non-violent offenses. It spotlighted programs like Broward County’s and research that links suspensions to poor outcomes, like low student engagement in school. Civil rights groups have pointed to student arrests for non-violent behaviors, like refusing to surrender a cell phone to a teacher, as causes for concern.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, has encouraged DeVos to review Broward County’s discipline policies and how they are linked to the Obama-era guidance. A review of that guidance is also on the agenda of the White House school safety task force, which DeVos chairs.

Civil rights groups say recent nationwide efforts to reform school discipline have been crucial for students of color. It would be wrong to change course on such broad policies because of one, rare incident, they argue/

Reactions in Parkland

Amid anger about the new revelation, Runcie tweeted out a link and thanked WLRN for the report.

Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the shooting, called the news “a stunning revelation” in a Twitter thread about the report.

Cameron Kasky, one of the Stoneman Douglas students who helped organize protests in favor of new gun laws, also pointed criticism at Runcie Monday.

The Parkland School Shooting: Complete Coverage

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