The Parkland school shooting was a heartbreaking, devastating tragedy. On February 14, former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Nikolas Cruz allegedly fired at the school, killing 14 students and three school personnel. Cruz wounded at least 14 others. As reports uncovered more information about the accused shooter and his actions, the story became even graver: Cruz was an orphan with a history of troubling behavior. Today, families and policymakers must cope with this tragedy, and part of this recovery requires study of the school safety policies that were in place at the time of the disaster.
In 2013, Broward County School District, home to two of Cruz’s former schools—Stoneman Douglas High School and Westglades Middle School—launched a high-profile school-safety program, Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support & Education (PROMISE). PROMISE received national attention, including praise from the Obama Administration.
PROMISE is a school safety initiative with the goals of providing “safe, secure and supportive environments for all students” and reducing “external suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.” PROMISE attempted to prevent students from entering the juvenile justice system.
The policies rely on restorative justice strategies, which “provide opportunities for students to be accountable to those they have harmed, and enable them to repair the harm they caused.” The interventions are “tiered,” and individuals from different offices including school personnel and counselors and law enforcement engage with a participating student at various points to respond to a student’s action. Local offices involved with student discipline, including law enforcement, agreed to “uniformity” in handling student misbehavior as they tried to provide a “safe” learning environment and limit the use of suspension, expulsion, and arrests. In fact, local law enforcement and individuals in the justice system signed a memorandum of agreement with the Broward County School District outlining how the offices would work together to carry out PROMISE.
Despite this commitment to safety, PROMISE and those who agreed to collaborate on school discipline issues using PROMISE failed to prevent the Parkland tragedy. Now, families, teachers, and policymakers are casting a critical eye toward this school-discipline policy.
PROMISE and Nikolas Cruz
According to reports, Cruz was never referred to PROMISE or arrested, but a review of Cruz’s record and PROMISE’s guidelines suggest he may have engaged in PROMISE-eligible offenses. This activity raises questions about the relationship between the accused shooter and district policies.
According to a Washington Post timeline, Cruz left Westglades Middle School with a record that included 26 “disciplinary incidents.” In 2016, while enrolled at Douglas High School, he made a threat online saying he “planned to shoot up the school.” Law enforcement provided this information to school officials. Notably, PROMISE includes threats as a behavior meriting intervention through the program, yet Cruz was not referred.
Cruz also allegedly committed assault at Douglas High School in 2017, another action listed in the PROMISE matrix. Still, Broward officials say they have “no record of Nikolas Cruz committing a PROMISE-eligible infraction or being assigned the PROMISE while in high school [sic].”
Furthermore, despite years of misbehavior, Cruz was never arrested or expelled, according to the Miami Herald. CNN reports that law enforcement received 45 calls between 2008 and 2017 “related to the Cruz home, Nikolas Cruz or his brother.” The Washington Post and USA Today report that by the time of the tragedy, Cruz had acted in such ways that school officials, law enforcement, state welfare agency officials, the FBI, and school counselors had been involved in or notified of Cruz’s actions at different points in time.
The collaborative agreement that Broward officials signed in 2016 demonstrates that agencies were working together to implement PROMISE. Again, while one of PROMISE’s goals is safety (“The foundation of the PROMISE program” is “respect for community safety”), another is reducing “suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.” Even in cases of “emergency” that “require the immediate involvement of law enforcement,” law enforcement, justice officials, and school personnel agreed to “ensure…[that] the least punitive means of discipline is being deployed.”
Parents and policymakers can ask, then, what constitutes a PROMISE-eligible infraction and why was Cruz not referred?
Federal Response to Parkland
Sun-Sentinel writer Ryan Nicol says, “It will be up to Broward County School Board members and other officials to determine what role the PROMISE program played in the Parkland tragedy, and whether schools are more dangerous because of it.” Parents, school personnel, and policymakers around the country should reflect on this question, given that Washington's 2014 guidelines on school discipline policy bear some of the same characteristics as Broward’s policies.
In 2014, the Obama Administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to all public schools with instructions on how to “reduce disruption” without discriminating against students according to “personal characteristics.” The letter was in response to data demonstrating that minority students were more likely than their peers to be disciplined in school. Indeed, no one should face discipline based on his or her race. However, Washington not only condemned such acts but issued recommendations to local schools for disciplining students that do not include suspension, expulsion, or law enforcement involvement.
The letter gives school officials specific guidelines to use in designing school discipline policies. Such policies are demonstrably similar to PROMISE (see appendix). The PROMISE agreement signed by law enforcement and the school district, the PROMISE guidelines, and the 2014 federal guidance have similar theoretical and practical ideas on school discipline: All of the documents call for a signed agreement between school officials and law enforcement on school safety; the use of restorative justice; and limiting the use of out-of-school placements (suspension or expulsion), the judicial system, and law enforcement in school discipline.
Furthermore, White House press releases, Broward County school and law enforcement officials’ statements, and district and White House documents strengthen the connection between PROMISE and the 2014 federal guidance.
In 2014, Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie told Scholastic.com, “Some of my staff joke that the Obama administration might have taken our policies and framework and developed them into national guidelines…. What we’ve got is very aligned with that. We went out early on.” In January 2018, the Broad Center (an education and school leadership organization) reported that “the Obama administration took notice” of PROMISE and “PROMISE informed the White House’s guidance on student disciplinary practices nationwide.”
The Obama Administration would later praise Broward County for its school discipline policies, and stated in a 2015 press release that the district had “made progress in transforming policies and school climate to support student learning.” Then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised restorative justice activities and Runcie in 2015, saying, “So I’m very, very pleased with their work. We did a White House school discipline summit very recently and both districts [Broward and Miami-Dade] were there.”
Following the 2014 federal school discipline guidance, schools across the country began using these federal guidelines. At least six large school districts were following the guidance by 2015, with schools in at least another five states participating today. One report finds that at least 50 school districts have adopted these policies.
A tragic combination of personal, family, social, law enforcement, and judicial actors and circumstances share responsibility for the tragedy at Douglas High School, but that does not exonerate federal guidelines based on the types of policies in PROMISE—policies being used by other schools across the U.S.
On March 12, President Donald Trump’s Administration announced that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would lead a new Federal Commission on School Safety. The Administration asked the committee to make recommendations regarding violence prevention strategies, including the repeal of the 2014 federal school discipline guidelines. Earlier this month, Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) sent a letter to Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling for an inquiry into the same guidelines.
Media outlets such as Politico and The New York Times have reported criticism of the Trump Administration’s call for repeal of this letter. Critics say the 2014 federal guidance is “an unrelated issue” and “there’s no evidence to suggest that those policies had anything to do with the massacre.”
Yet PROMISE and 2014 federal school discipline guidance share similar approaches to school discipline and limiting suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. Reports of how district and law enforcement officials operating under PROMISE failed to intervene are troubling. Other school systems have adopted measures based on the federal guidance, making a repeal of the federal guidance a relevant and appropriate response to the Broward County tragedy.
—Jonathan Butcher is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Education Policy, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.