Confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz was a disciplinary nightmare for schools before he opened fire in Parkland, Florida — yet there was nothing on his record to stop him from buying a firearm or alarm the FBI after the agency received a tip.
The demand for an answer to that question has focused attention on Broward County Public Schools policies embraced by the Obama administration that were designed to help rule-breaking students avoid permanent blots on their records by reducing referrals to law enforcement.
Under Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, who worked for Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan in the Chicago Public Schools, school-based arrests dropped by 63 percent from 2012 to 2016 after he implemented policies designed to derail the “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline.”
But the approach also helped keep Cruz off the law-enforcement radar, despite school-based offenses that reportedly included assault, threats and bringing bullets to school in his backpack.
“Mr. Cruz is a perfect example of someone just falling through the cracks that we create through bad policy,” Jeff Bell, a deputy sheriff and president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputy Association, told The Washington Times.
The 19-year-old Cruz was transferred six times in three years, the Miami Herald reported, but never expelled, taken into custody or arrested. He opened fire Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, killing 14 students and three teachers.
“If I have a weapon or even ammunition on school grounds, and I have certain things in my past, I could be arrested for that, but Mr. Cruz just gets off scot-free,” said Officer Bell. “And that’s the thing. If he had gotten arrested just once for disorderly conduct or trespassing or something like that, that would have shown up on his criminal record, and could have sent up some red flags before he was ever allowed to buy a firearm.”
He said deputies working as school resource officers in Broward County had their hands tied after the school district overhauled its student conduct code in 2013 with its Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline.
The agreement, developed with partners including the NAACP, the Broward County sheriff and Broward state attorney, included a diversionary program for repeat offenders called PROMISE and listed 14 misdemeanors no longer subject to school-based arrest.
“They were basically paying us not to make arrests,” said Officer Bell.
Broward County Schools spokeswoman Tracy Clark denied that the policy overhaul stopped officers from doing their jobs.
“The District’s position with the PROMISE program and school discipline reform efforts, in partnership with local law enforcement, has always been explicitly clear — that there is no intent to limit or tie the hands of law enforcement in doing their jobs in addressing school safety,” she said in a statement.
She said the program provides counseling and help with the “restorative justice process,” as well as “referrals to the juvenile justice system for students and families who do not comply with and complete the PROMISE program.”
The ambitious disciplinary reforms placed the Broward County district on the cutting edge of the nationwide push to decriminalize school discipline championed by the Obama administration.
“Some of my staff joke that the Obama administration might have taken our policies and framework and developed them into national guidelines,” Mr. Runcie told Scholastic Administrator in a 2014 interview. “What we’ve got is very aligned with that. We went out early on.”
In 2011, Mr. Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative aimed at “ending the school-to-prison pipeline” by placing the onus on schools to address juvenile delinquency, a precursor to its Rethink Discipline initiative.
“When our young people start getting locked up and getting criminal records, they start getting locked into poverty,” Mr. Duncan said in 2011.
In January 2014, two months after Broward approved its reform agreement, the Justice and Education departments released a joint “Dear Colleague” letter on “nondiscriminatory application of school discipline,” warning that federal officials would investigate schools that failed to address disparate discipline rates for minority students.
And investigate them they did. “They investigated hundreds of schools serving millions of students, and these investigations were for the purpose of changing policies,” said Manhattan Institute senior fellow Max Eden. “They were for the purpose of making schools adopt Broward-esque policies.”
More than 50 other major school districts have since adopted the more lenient discipline approach, “allowing thousands of troubled, often violent, students to commit crimes without legal consequence,” said Paul Sperry in RealClearInvestigations.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has come under renewed pressure to rescind the “Dear Colleague” letter on school discipline, much as she did last year with the Obama-era Education Department’s Title IX letter on combattng campus sexual assault.
Among those urging her to revoke the guidance is Peter Kirsanow, a Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who called the Broward and Obama discipline initiatives “galactically wrongheaded.”
“Many districts that have adopted this approach have seen stunning increases in the number and gravity of offenses, with negative consequences for learning and safety,” said Mr. Kirsanow in an email. “Racial disparities in disciplinary rates are not solved by cosmetically changing an assault into an ‘encounter,’ or calling a robbery an ‘appropriation.’ That’s not just fantasy, it’s dangerous.’
Erika Soto Lamb, spokeswoman for Democrats for Education Reform, blasted foes of the school-discipline reforms, pointing out that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office responded to at least 45 calls related to the shooter outside of school.
“Like the Parkland High School students did, it’s time to call ‘BS’ on attempts to lay blame on anything other than the culture of gun violence in America and the system of weak laws that makes it too easy for dangerous people to get guns,” said Ms. Lamb in an email.
Meanwhile, Broward County has been held up as a model for schools seeking to keep kids out of the criminal-justice system.
Mr. Runcie was invited to the White House in 2015 for a Rethink Discipline summit, while the district received a $54 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant in October 2016 that was based in part on its efforts to keep high-risk students in school.
“We’re not going to continue to arrest our kids and put them in a position where they can’t recover,” Mr. Runcie said in 2014. “Once you have an arrest record, it becomes difficult to get scholarships, get a job, or go into the military.”
What an arrest also does is provide information to law enforcement. “There’s a reason why we want police records,” said Mr. Eden.
“If there’s a kid who makes death threats or gets into fights, then that’s in the system,” he said. “The idea was that we should keep these things out of the system because it might come as a cost to kids if they’re in the system, but it also comes at a cost to society if they’re not. And that’s a cost that we felt very hard in Parkland.”