Nearly three months after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killed 17, school officials have admitted that shooter Nikolas Cruz avoided jail in 2013, and instead was assigned to a program endorsed by the Obama administration to limit the arrests of students.
For weeks, Broward county school superintendent Robert Runcie denied Cruz was in the program, which had been criticized for allowing problem kids to avoid punishment and stay out of the juvenile justice system. Officials say Cruz was assigned to the “PROMISE” program after vandalizing his school in 2013, but officials have no record of whether he even showed up to the three-day program, which is supposed to address problem kids’ behavior.
The incident only adds more reason to question the actions of Broward County authorities with both the Sheriff’s Department and the school district, who allowed a problem kid like Cruz to fly under the radar. The revelation of Cruz’s connection to the program was uncovered only by the persistent reporting at WLRN.
The PROMISE program was an initiative that won the approval of the Obama administration, and was born of the idea that minority kids were being unfairly and disproportionately arrested and punished for juvenile crimes. Kids in the program were able to avoid jail and the stigma of the juvenile justice system. It has been criticized by many for making the juvenile crime problem worse, by allowing problem kids to repeatedly avoid punishment for their actions.
Runcie is now being accused of covering up Cruz’s participation in the program, to avoid negative publicity.
(Superintendent spokesman Tracy) Clark said he (Cruz) appeared at Pine Ridge Education Center in Fort Lauderdale — an alternative school facility where PROMISE is housed — for an intake interview the day after the vandalism incident.
But, she said, “It does not appear that Cruz completed the recommended three-day assignment/placement.” She said she did not want to “speculate” as to why.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office has also said Cruz didn’t attend PROMISE.
“The school board reports that there was no PROMISE program participation,” BSO representative Jack Dale said during a recent meeting of a new state commission tasked with investigating the shooting.
The PROMISE program allows students who commit certain misdemeanors — there’s an official list of 13 — at school to avoid getting involved with the criminal justice system. Instead, they attend the alternative school, where they receive counseling and other support.
PROMISE has come under scrutiny after 17 people died in the Feb. 14 shooting at Stoneman Douglas, in part because one of the injured survivors is planning a lawsuit that will argue the program led school leaders to demonstrate a lax attitude toward discipline.
Runcie and school board members remain steadfastly committed to PROMISE, which was designed to limit the “school-to-prison pipeline” at a time when more kids were getting arrested in Broward schools than any other district in the state. The administrators have worked to combat what they argue is a politically motivated attack based on “misinformation” and “fake news.”
In his defense of the program, Runcie has touted its high success rate in preventing recidivism: Nearly nine out of 10 kids who go to PROMISE don’t commit another offense at school that would send them back there.
He has maintained there’s no link between PROMISE and the shooting, calling it “reprehensible” that people have tried to use the tragedy to target the program.
“Let me reiterate this point,” Runcie started off during an interview in his office last month. “Nikolas Cruz, the shooter that was involved in this horrific accident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, had no connection to the PROMISE program.”
During the same conversation, Runcie said: “I’m not going to allow a shift from what our focus needs to be to a fictitious narrative that’s being made up about a successful program that we have in Broward County that has no connection to the shooter or the situation at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Runcie’s people are now backpedaling, claiming that his claim only applied to Cruz’s time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz reportedly was assigned to PROMISE while in junior high.
Cruz’s high school discipline records, obtained by WLRN, show he got in trouble for fighting and verbal assault while at Stoneman Douglas — but those infractions didn’t meet the eligibility requirements for PROMISE. In both cases, he was suspended.
During the interview last month, Runcie said he couldn’t discuss details of Cruz’s school records because of a federal law that shields student privacy.
And he stressed that school discipline procedures are more complicated when it comes to students with disabilities. Administrators are required by federal law to consider whether a student’s misbehavior is related to his or her disability, and if it is determined that it is, they are required to provide support for the disability rather than punish the behavior.
Cruz was diagnosed with a developmental delay as a small child.
The PROMISE program grew out of concerns that schools were being too strict with students, and the “zero tolerance” approach to discipline was being used against minority students unfairly.
In the 2011-12 school year, more students were arrested at school, on the bus or at school-sponsored events in Broward County than any other district in Florida, according to a report from the state Department of Juvenile Justice. That year, there were 1,062 school-related arrests in Broward, nearly twice the number of arrests in larger Miami-Dade, which reported 552.
Nearly 70 percent of the arrests were for misdemeanor crimes, and there were instances of kids getting handcuffed for throwing spitballs, according to a Sun Sentinel report at the time. The district found that “zero tolerance” discipline policies were disproportionately affecting children who were black or disabled. Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students were also more likely to be arrested than their peers.
In part at the urging of civil rights groups, Runcie led an effort to reform the district’s discipline policies. Administrators partnered with a variety of entities involved with juvenile justice — including law enforcement, the state attorney’s office, Broward Circuit Court Judge Elijah Williams, the NAACP and a county-based government agency that focuses on children’s affairs. The group consulted with another judge who had seen some success dealing with similar problems in Georgia.
The committee met for a year with the stated purpose of eliminating the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The result was PROMISE — an acronym that stands for Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports and Education. It launched in 2013.
“The intention behind it was very clearly to find a way to impose consequences for bad behavior that wasn’t too serious and didn’t pose a threat to school safety,” said Maria Schneider, assistant state attorney in charge of the Juvenile Division in Broward and a member of the committee that developed PROMISE.
Students assigned to the PROMISE program had to have committed one of a handful of crimes, including trespassing, vandalism, theft under $300, using or selling drugs and alcohol, harassment, fighting, and minor assault where a victim was uninjured. Critics said it allowed problem students to avoid serious consequences.
Runcie has said about 1,600 to 2,000 students participate in PROMISE each year.
For the most part, school administrators try to handle the behavior concerns without involving law enforcement. But police are consulted under some circumstances; for example, when a student is caught with marijuana, cops are called to confiscate it.
“We provide intervention services,” Runcie said. “We try to get at the root cause of what’s going on.”
Those services include therapy and instruction in conflict resolution and anger management. Students who get in trouble with alcohol or drugs can get substance abuse treatment. If teachers determine participants need long-term help they coordinate mental health care with counselors from Nova Southeastern University.
However, many feel that the program actually shields problem students from being identified, rather than help first-time offenders from continuing their bad behavior. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been a critic of the program.
Anthony Borges, a 15-year-old Stoneman Douglas freshman, was the last survivor of the shooting to be released from the hospital. He was shot trying to shield others from bullets and is credited with saving up to 20 people.
During a press conference on April 6, two days after Borges got home from the hospital, he and his family announced their intentions to sue several individuals and government agencies they argue were negligent in preventing the shooting — the Broward school district among them.
Arreaza read a statement on Borges’ behalf, the student’s words directed at Runcie.
“You failed us students, teachers and parents alike on so many levels,” he said. “I want to ask you today to please end your policy and agreement that you will not arrest people committing crimes in our schools.”
Borges was referring to PROMISE.
Arreaza said later that Borges doesn’t have a problem with PROMISE itself if it’s implemented as intended. But he argued that district administrators sent a message with PROMISE that students shouldn’t be arrested at all, even if they commit more serious crimes.
“If you have that atmosphere — how could you think nothing’s going to happen?” he said. “Eventually a Nikolas Cruz is going to come around.”
Borges isn’t the only one who has made this argument. It has come up a lot during a series of public meetings held since the shooting, with teachers, students and parents arguing PROMISE is an example that the district isn’t doing enough to punish criminal behavior.
And the program has high-profile critics on the right, some of whom have claimed there are connections between PROMISE and the Obama administration.
President Obama was supportive of Broward’s PROMISE program and encouraged other school districts to adopt similar policies in federal guidance in 2014.
Not surprisingly, Superintendent Runcie has loose ties to the Obama administration, hailing from the Chicago school system.
Runcie previously worked in Chicago’s public schools under Arne Duncan, who later served as Obama’s secretary of education — a relationship some have highlighted when claiming the former president was behind the PROMISE program’s creation.
Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has targeted the program.
“The more we learn, the more it appears the problem is not the program or the [Department of Education] guidance itself, but the way it is being applied,” the Republican tweeted. “It may have created a culture discourages referral to law enforcement even in egregious cases like the #Parkland shooter.”
Conservative pundits have also cast a negative spotlight on PROMISE. FOX news host Laura Ingraham called PROMISE a “perverse incentive to hide student criminality,” created in part by “Obama bureaucrats.”
On her show, “The Angle,” Ingraham said: “By turning Broward schools and those across the nation into these social justice petri dishes, [Runcie, the Broward sheriff and the Obama administration] may have facilitated a lunatic.”
Runcie has said he won’t let politics affect the effort to reform discipline policies.
Schneider, from the state attorney’s office, said she thinks people have assailed PROMISE in the aftermath of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas because they are frustrated and want answers.
“I think that all of us want to know why. Could this have been stopped? Could it have been prevented if something had been done differently? Would we not have ended up with 17 beautiful lives lost?” she said.
Runcie and school board members have vowed to protect PROMISE.
“There is no intent to get rid of the PROMISE program,” School Board Member Rosalind Osgood said at a meeting last month.
Board Chair Nora Rupert agreed, echoing her: “Nope.”
Runcie himself has not commented on the revelation and possible coverup.