Broward school district officials admitted Sunday that the confessed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gunman was assigned to a controversial disciplinary program, after the superintendent repeatedly claimed Nikolas Cruz had "no connection" to the alternative punishment designed to limit on-campus arrests.
Two sources with knowledge of Cruz’s discipline records told WLRN he was referred to the so-called PROMISE Program for a three-day stint after committing vandalism at Westglades Middle School in 2013.
When asked for a response, a spokeswoman for Superintendent Robert Runcie stated on Friday that district administrators were aggressively analyzing Cruz's records. Then Tracy Clark said on Sunday afternoon the district had "confirmed" Cruz's referral to PROMISE after he vandalized a bathroom at the middle school on Nov. 25, 2013.
However, it's unclear if Cruz ever attended the program.
Clark said he 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 9 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.”
Clark, the spokeswoman for Runcie, said the superintendent has "correctly stated" Cruz wasn’t in PROMISE when he was in high school at Stoneman Douglas. (However, Runcie hasn't always referred specifically to Cruz's time in high school.)
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.
“Because there’s been so much speculation about what [Cruz] may or may not have done, or what the district should have or should not have done, we’ve asked for an independent review by experts in the field to review his entire academic record and his experience within Broward County,” Runcie said.
He added: “That report will be available to the public in June.”
The district is holding an informational forum on PROMISE at 5 p.m. tonight at Piper High School in Sunrise.
WHAT IS PROMISE?
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, Judge Elijah Williams of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit of Florida, 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.
She said the panel aimed to mitigate the damage that a possible criminal record could do to a young person later in life, when applying for college or jobs.
“Who wants to explain what they did when they were 13 years old, you know?” she said. “We wanted to find a way to minimize the harm.”
Under the program, students who commit one of 13 eligible misdemeanors at school are eligible to spend from three to 10 days in the PROMISE program at Pine Ridge Education Center.
Some of those infractions are petty theft under $300, trespassing, vandalism, possession or sale of alcohol or marijuana, bullying, harassment, fighting or assault that doesn’t result in an injury.
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.
The number of students committing the eligible misdemeanors has decreased steadily since the program was put in place, according to data from 2016, which was the most recent information the district would provide.
In 2013, the first year, 6,555 students committed infractions that would make them eligible for PROMISE. That’s about 3 percent of the district’s enrollment (excluding pre-kindergarten and charter schools). In 2016, that number dropped to 2,883, about 1.3 percent.
Also in 2016, the district found that 87.7 percent of students who went to PROMISE did not commit another infraction upon returning to their regular schools. About 2.5 percent of students commit three or more infractions.
“We know it’s successful,” Runcie said.
Laura Kolo is a longtime Broward teacher who has worked at PROMISE since its second year and now coordinates special education services for students with disabilities there. She said most students are assigned to the program because of fighting or drug possession.
“We see a lot of kids that come to our program that are angry, and they don’t know how to deal with it,” Kolo said.
Teachers there meet with the students one-and-one and also hold group sessions to try to get to the root cause of the misbehavior.
“They just want to talk,” she said. “They want to be heard.”
PUSHBACK AGAINST PROMISE
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.
“Anthony took five bullets from an AR-15 — two in his left leg, one in his right leg and two in his torso," said Alex Arreaza, a lawyer who is representing Borges and his family.
"At the time, he was probably weighing about 130 pounds. So it's incredible that he even survived, that he's even alive to talk about it," he said.
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 commiting crimes in our schools.”
Borges was referring to PROMISE.
Arreaza said later Borges doesn’t have a problem with PROMISE itself, if it’s implemented as intended. But he argued district administrators sent a message with PROMISE that students shouldn’t be arrested at all, even if they commit more serious crimes.
He didn’t cite specific examples but said he is gathering evidence to present in a lawsuit.
“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.”
Runcie has said people are conflating PROMISE with the district’s full range of discipline policies, assuming administrators assign the relatively lenient punishment to students who commit felonies. He said that’s not the case, stressing students who commit serious crimes are arrested and either suspended or expelled from traditional schools.
“The narrative out there that we have lawlessness going on in our schools … is absolutely not true,” Runcie said.
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. But the program pre-dated Obama’s focus on reforming school discipline.
Some have claimed the program was funded with federal dollars through Obama’s signature Race To The Top competitive grant program. Broward officials said the program is funded completely with the district’s own funds, not including any federal funding, but did not provide a detailed breakdown of the program’s budget or its overall annual cost upon request.
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.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has been a high-profile critic.
One big problem with this article today in @NYTimes the #Parkland killer was never in the “Promise” program this article touts as “model” to address racial disparity. That’s point of my inquiries, not clear where killer was in the school discipline system. https://t.co/XyEu83Ab4D— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) March 13, 2018
“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.”
Rubio's office declined a request for an interview.
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.”
Recently, Ingraham lost half of her show's advertisers after mocking Stoneman Douglas senior and gun control activist David Hogg on Twitter.
Runcie has said he won’t let politics affect the effort to reform discipline policies.
“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,” he said.
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.
PROMISE “stands out there as an easy target,” she said. “Whether it's a fair target — I haven't seen any reason to believe that it is.”
‘NO INTENT TO GET RID OF' PROMISE
While there’s been plenty of harsh words about PROMISE at public meetings since the shooting, there’s also evidence of community support.
At a school safety forum hosted by the district last month, a junior at J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs told the crowd that he went to PROMISE for six days after getting caught at school with a quarter ounce of marijuana.
“I attended the counseling with therapy, and every day, someone is talking to me about life choices,” the student said. “It just made me open my eyes and see the world in a whole different way. And I just want to thank the PROMISE program for giving me a second chance.”
The crowd cheered and applauded.
Another student who completed the program said it is the reason she’s now considering a career in the military or studying medicine in college.
Her name is Ashley. She didn’t want her last name to be included in this article, because she doesn’t want the trouble she got into when she was younger to follow her after high school.
Ashley, now a senior at a Broward County high school, said she went to PROMISE for 10 days when she was a freshman. She didn’t want to get into too much detail about what happened.
“My freshman year, I was hanging out with the wrong group of kids. There was peer pressure involved,” she said.
“You know, you do things you don't really mean, and simple mistakes, and it just … you're lucky if you get the chance to redeem yourself and try again,” she said.
Ashley’s mom said it was scary to face the possibility that her child could have been charged criminally for “a big lapse in judgment.” She didn’t want her name included, either, for fear it would reveal her daughter’s identity.
She said PROMISE helps kids realize they still have a future.
“This is not the end of whatever plans that they have,” she said. “It may just be the beginning.”
Runcie and school board members have vowed to protect PROMISE.
“There is no intent to get rid of the PROMISE program,” board member Rosalind Osgood said at a meeting last month.
Board chair Nora Rupert agreed, echoing her: “Nope.”
WLRN Broward County reporter Caitie Switalski contributed reporting.