Broward County school officials bolstered the case against the Obama-era discipline directive by admitting — after months of emphatic denials — that the confessed Parkland shooter was referred to a program designed to keep youths out of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The disclosure came as another hit to the district’s credibility and reignited criticism of the Promise program, a progressive protocol emphasizing counseling over suspensions, as a precursor to the Obama administration’s hotly disputed 2014 discipline guidance.
Among those weighing in Monday were parents of children slaughtered Feb. 14 in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Nikolas Cruz, 19, has confessed to the attack, but a judge has entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.
Ryan Petty, the father of shooting victim Alaina Petty, called the disclosure a “stunning revelation.” He argued that the district’s discipline protocols created “perverse incentives” and “deadly chaos for our children, teachers & staff.”
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the attack, said the admission by Superintendent Robert W. Runcie confirmed “what I have been saying for the last month and Runcie has been denying.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, tweeted that the school district had misled him, and Stoneman Douglas student Kyle Kashuv said the superintendent “knowingly lied” about Mr. Cruz’s record.
“[Mr. Cruz] avoided arrest because of it,” Mr. Kashuv said. “That’s the point of the program. Students are referred to it in lieu of arrest.”
The program has been credited with drastically lowering the suspension, expulsion and arrest rates at Broward County schools but has been blamed for fueling classroom chaos by replacing traditional disciplinary measures with therapeutic approaches.
Critics have argued that the rampage could have been prevented if Mr. Cruz had been arrested for infractions such as bringing bullets to school, which would have left him unable to pass the background check needed to buy the AR-15 rifle used in the shooting.
More than 500 schools have enacted similar discipline protocols rather than face federal civil rights investigations, prompting teachers and administrators to manipulate the numbers to avoid scrutiny, said Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
“It’s not about Promise itself,” Mr. Eden said. “It’s about the culture of fear [Mr. Runcie] and his policies create that drives educators to underreport serious offenses.”
He cited “the death threats made and weapons brought to school by Nikolas Cruz, of which there appears to be no record. But hey, he made himself look great by getting the arrests way down.”
Tracy Clark, Broward County Public Schools spokeswoman, said Monday that Mr. Cruz was referred to the Promise program in November 2013 for the vandalizing of a bathroom at Westglades Middle School, although she said he apparently did not complete the three-day placement.
She also defended the district’s earlier insistence that Mr. Cruz had never been admitted to Promise, which stands for Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports and Education.
“Broward County Public Schools has correctly and accurately stated that Nikolas Cruz did not participate in the Promise program, which is for nonviolent infractions, while attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” Ms. Clark said.
Mr. Runcie has often said that Mr. Cruz was not enrolled at the program while in high school but didn’t always include the qualifier, as in his interview last month with WLRN-FM in Miami.
“Let me reiterate this point,” Mr. Runcie told the station. “Nikolas Cruz, the shooter that was involved in this horrific accident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, had no connection to the Promise program.”
Mr. Eden wasn’t impressed. “He said that Cruz was never in Promise ‘while in high school.’ And now we learn he was while in middle school. Utterly shameless,” he said.
The district, which has hired an independent firm to conduct an investigation into Mr. Cruz’s history with Broward County schools, said the information first reported Sunday by WLRN-FM was only recently unearthed.
“Our district’s and Superintendent Runcie’s previous comments were an honest effort to respond with what was believed at the time to be correct information,” Ms. Clark said. “The district has now learned new details — and that information is being shared — proof of the district’s ongoing commitment transparency.”
About 1,600 to 2,000 students participate each year in Promise, which is aimed at offering counseling and therapy to students involved in nonviolent infractions.
Approved by Mr. Runcie, Promise was at the forefront of a national movement that culminated in the Obama administration’s 2014 directive on school discipline, which threatened school districts with civil rights investigations unless they reduced racial disparities in school discipline.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering whether to rescind the directive in the face of mounting complaints, after holding listening sessions last month in her office with advocates on both sides of the issue.
Supporters of the directive have argued that the pressure is needed to prevent teachers and principals from discriminating in particular against black students, who are suspended at significantly higher rates than white students.
Mr. Cruz has been indicted on 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for each person killed in the massacre.
His attorney has offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for life without parole, but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.