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Senators Zero In on Law Enforcement, School Discipline in Hearing on Parkland Shooting

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 14, 2018 6 min read
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A Senate hearing on the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month focused today on law enforcement’s role in what led to the death of 17 students and staff, what school officials might have done to head off the shooting, and the next steps lawmakers should take to prevent future school violence.

Republicans who control the Senate Judiciary Committee, which hosted the Wednesday hearing, focused on what they said were multiple failures by law enforcement to neutralize the threat posed by suspect Nikolas Cruz, 19, both before and during the incident. But Democrats said the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School highlighted the urgent need for additional gun-control measures. The parent of a Stoneman Douglas student who was murdered, as well as a teacher at the high school, also said there was not a single, simple answer to school violence.

Senators, who held the hearing as students around the country walked out of school to demand new gun-control measures and efforts to prevent school violence, also discussed arming teachers and school discipline policies. In addition, Linda Alathari, chief of the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, announced during her testimony that her agency was beginning new research into violence directed specifically at schools by current and former students.

Law Enforcement and School Discipline

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, set down a major theme for the hearing when he stressed failures by the FBI, specifically for not acting on tips about Cruz’s threats on social media, as well as by local law enforcement, despite several interactions with Cruz. Grassley suggested that ultimately, Cruz should have been taken into custody by law enforcement and therefore prevented from purchasing a firearm.

“We must hold our government accountable for its failures and to ensure plans are in place to prevent future tragedies,” Grassley said.

A top FBI official acknowledged that information the agency obtained about Cruz should have led to further action and follow-up from authorities. The agency has said it failed to investigate a tip from someone close to Cruz in the months before the shooting. “Do I think we could have changed the course of the outcome here? I don’t know,” said David Bowdich, the deputy director of the FBI.

Two Republican senators, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, suggested in the hearing that if the Broward County district’s approach to discipline had led to Cruz’s arrest, the Parkland shooting might have been prevented.

Broward changed its school discipline policy in 2013 to address what officials there called biases that can lead students of color to be punished more harshly than white students who commit the same infraction. The policy was also designed to reduce police officers’ involvement in minor on-campus incidents. In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidance on school discipline that also stressed the issue of “disparate impact.” That guidance also called on schools to keep school police out of routine disciplinary issues that had been traditionally handled by school administrators.

Rubio said that while he didn’t want students arrested, he thought Cruz’s actions should have merited a referral to law enforcement by the school and his arrest: “He was a dangerous individual. ... If he would have been arrested and committed he would have failed a background check.”

Rubio supports the STOP School Violence Act, which is designed to fund mental-health services and training at schools, but doesn’t address gun control. The House was slated to vote on its version of the legislation on Wednesday.

And Lee also touched on the issue, saying that Cruz was not expelled despite numerous troubling things he did at school, including making threats and bringing ammunition to the building. (Cruz was suspended multiple times and ultimately removed from Marjory Stoneman Douglas for behavioral reasons.)

“If it had been reported to police that this conduct had taken place, might the tip-vetting process have turned out differently?” Lee asked Bowdich, who did not give a definitive answer, but did say more information-sharing between officials is always helpful.

However, there has been no clear link established between that policy and the Parkland shooter’s ability to purchase firearms—for example, it is not clear what he could have been arrested for in the context of his time in school. And there’s no obvious impact the Obama guidance had on Broward’s approach to discipline, and to Cruz.

‘School Violence as a Disease’

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., raised school discipline as well. But she connected disciplinary policies to the treatment of certain groups of students, not to the Parkland shooter.

In criticizing the idea of arming teachers, she said she worried about the “implicit bias” that may exist in schools, and how the presence of guns in schools might affect those students. In response to a question from Harris about the subject, Bowdich said he hadn’t connected the two topics. Harris also raised several practical objections to arming educators.

“There may be people hit that we did not intend to hit. If we’re talking about a teacher in the classroom, that might well be other students,” she said.

Several Democratic senators also weighed in to support additional gun-control measures, such as a ban on military-style assault weapons.

“High school students who have lost their friends are literally begging us to take action, to get these guns off the streets and out of our schools,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee.

Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed at Stoneman Douglas last month, urged lawmakers to draw inspiration from legislation Florida adopted earlier this month, find common ground, and to look for solutions not just in new policies, but in the care children deserve from parents, schools and communities. Read more about that Florida legislation here.

“If we think of school violence as a disease, we would not just treat the symptoms or only don protective gear to avoid accidental exposure,” Petty said. “We must learn to identify these troubled youth, before they turn violent and get them the help they desperately need.”

Katherine Posada, a Stoneman Douglas teacher who sheltered students in her classroom during the shooting, recounted her experience and echoed Democrats’ concerns about arming school staff: “If we do this at a larger scale, I fear these things will happen more and more,” she said.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced the STOP School Violence Act. The legislation would authorize up to $100 million annually to school-based mental-health services, and aims to train educators to better detect the warning signs of potentially violent incidents.That money could also be spent on physical security infrastructure at schools.

There’s a similar but not identical House version of the bill.

Meanwhile, Rubio’s stress on the Obama guidance isn’t new, despite the lack of a clear link to the Stoneman Douglas shooting. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week, Rubio urged that they revise the guidance. A White House task force on school safety chaired by DeVos is set to discuss the discipline guidance and a wide range of other issues, including violent entertainment, and possible new age restrictions for gun purchases.

Photo: Ryan Petty, of Parkland, Fla., the father of Alaina Petty, one of the students killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, looks on as Katherine Posada, a teacher at Stoneman Douglas, testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the school shootings and school safety. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

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