How did Nikolas Cruz rack up twenty-five disciplinary actions in high school without getting a referral to law enforcement? And how did law enforcement in Broward County go through as many as forty-five contacts with Cruz and his family without an arrest that would have appeared on a firearms-purchase background check? The issue is a so-called “Promise” program in Broward County, as Marco Rubio noted in his Senate speech today, but that’s not where it started.
The responsibility, reports Paul Sperry at Real Clear Investigations, falls on the Obama administration’s Department of Education, which attempted to disconnect punishment from crimes committed by students — and turned people like Cruz loose. In 2013, Perry explains, the school district in Broward County rewrote its disciplinary procedures to avoid referrals to law enforcement. Current superintendent Robert Runcie developed the program, and the Department of Education not only endorsed it but made it part of their own policies:
In January 2014, Duncan’s department issued new discipline guidelines strongly recommending that schools use law enforcement measures and out-of-school suspensions as a last resort. Announced jointly by Duncan and then-Attorney General Eric Holder, the new procedures came as more than friendly guidance from Uncle Sam – they also came with threats of federal investigations and defunding for districts that refused to fully comply.
In 2015, the White House spotlighted Runcie’s leading role in the effort during a summit on “Rethinking Discipline.” Broward, the nation’s sixth largest school district, is one of 53 major districts across the country to adopt the federal guidelines, which remain in effect today due to administrative rules delaying a plan by the Trump administration to withdraw them.
That would explain the school’s refusal to refer Cruz to law enforcement. But law enforcement was already involved with Nikolas Cruz. Whether one believes Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s claim that they’d been called 23 times or a CNN report of 45 calls drawn from public records, law enforcement had plenty of opportunities to act on their own. So why didn’t they? It turns out that Runcie and Israel had agreed to ignore crimes committed by students in the district. The program is called “restorative justice,” and claims to be “repairing the harm done” to victims while keeping the students from facing consequences of their actions:
No district has taken this new approach further than Broward County. The core of the approach is a program called PROMISE (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support & Education), which substitutes counseling for criminal detention for students who break the law. According to the district website, the program is “designed to address the unique needs of students who have committed a behavioral infraction that would normally lead to a juvenile delinquency arrest and, therefore, entry into the juvenile justice system.”
The expressed goal of PROMISE is to bring about “reductions in external suspension, expulsions and arrests.” Delinquents who are diverted to the program are essentially absolved of responsibility for their actions. “This approach focuses on the situation as being the problem rather than the individual being the problem,” the website states.
Additional literature reveals that students referred to PROMISE for in-school misdemeanors – including assault, theft, vandalism, underage drinking and drug use – receive a controversial alternative punishment known as restorative justice.
“Rather than focusing on punishment, restorative justice seeks to repair the harm done,” the district explains. Indeed, it isn’t really punishment at all. It’s more like therapy. Delinquents gather in “healing circles” with counselors, and sometimes even the victims of their crime, and talk about their feelings and “root causes” of their anger.
Despite a combined number of sixty-eight opportunities to rethink this approach for Cruz, neither the school district nor law enforcement abandoned this policy. They had specific and credible warnings of Cruz’ potential for violence; one of the offenses the school noted was bullets in Cruz’ backpack. Students and neighbors repeatedly warned that Cruz would shoot people. All it would have taken to prevent Cruz from buying the weapon was one arrest and conviction out of sixty-eight separate incidents and calls.
And, Perry argues, all of this emphasis on “restorative justice” and absolving perpetrators of responsibility for their crimes came from the Obama administration. They wanted to lower the arrest rates for juveniles because they believed that arrests and prosecution unfairly targeted people of color and poorer children. Even if that were true, how does ignoring crime solve anything other than the data reported? The lack of disciplinary options available to school districts and the law enforcement agencies that partnered on these programs left other students, teachers, and school personnel much more at risk as students quickly learned that they would face no serious consequences for serious crimes.
Hans Bader warned about the consequences of the Obama-Duncan policy last year at Liberty Unyielding:
In places like New York City, schools have made it more difficult for principals to suspend disruptive or threatening students. The results? Increased violence, drug use, and gang activity, according to the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden. He looks at the consequences of the curbs on suspension imposed under Mayor Bill de Blasio in a study released today: School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public Schools, 2012-2016.
His findings are based on student and teacher responses to questions contained in the NYC School Survey. As he notes, “the de Blasio administration removed the vast majority of school-order-related questions on the NYC School Survey, limiting our ability to judge changes in school climate. But the answers to the five questions that were asked consistently reveal a troubling pattern. According to teachers and students, school climate … deteriorated dramatically” when de Blasio’s curbs on suspensions were implemented from 2013 to 2016.
In terms of violence, 50% of schools deteriorated, and only 14% of schools improved. In terms of gang activity, 39% deteriorated, while only 11% of schools improved. For drug and alcohol use, 37% deteriorated while only 7% of schools improved. By contrast, these measures had been stable during the preceding four years before Mayor de Blasio took office.
Ironically, although these curbs on suspensions were done in the name of helping minority students and ending a supposed “school-to-prison pipeline,” they harmed minority students the most, producing “a significant differential racial impact.”
Still, while the Department of Education pushed these approaches and incentivized their adoption by making stars out of people like Runcie and Israel, those decisions got made by the local school district and law enforcement agency in and around Parkland. They made the choice to turn a blind eye to Cruz literally dozens of times, not Arne Duncan or Barack Obama. Even in a “restorative justice” model, there has to be some judgment applied to emerging threats, and that responsibility lands entirely on Runcie, Israel, and their respective agencies.
While the Trump administration needs to end these Obama-era policy initiatives, we also need to make sure that Runcie, Israel, and others like them get held fully responsible for their own failures. Otherwise, we run the risk of making the same mistakes the Obama administration incentivized — making no one responsible for their own actions.