Rubio Promotes Bogus Claim That Broward School Discipline Policy Led to Shooting UPDATED

Ian Witlen
Update, 5/8: Superintendent Robert Runcie now admits that he incorrectly said that Nikolas Cruz had never participated in the controversial Promise disciplinary program; in fact, Cruz was referred to the program in middle school. Runcie blamed poor district record-keeping for his misstatements.

Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio stood on the Senate floor and announced a plan he said could prevent mass shootings like the Parkland massacre that left 17 dead. Despite weeks of pleas from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High survivors, his pitch had nothing to do with gun control.

Instead, the NRA-backed senator pushed a theory that surfaced on an obscure blog, Conservative Treehouse, before making its way to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. The problem isn't wide access to military-style weaponry, Rubio argued; it's Broward County Public Schools' disciplinary policies and the previously little-known program PROMISE (Preventing Recidivism Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education).

"A student who has threatened violence, who has exhibited violent behavior, needs to be reported to law enforcement," Rubio told the Senate. "But under Broward County school policies pursuant to something called the PROMISE program, reporting a student, a dangerous student, to law enforcement is the sixth step in their plan."

However, Rubio and his GOP colleagues are not only ignoring the real problem but also deliberately misleading the public about PROMISE. Although the school district has so far refused to discuss the specifics of killer Nikolas Cruz's education and disciplinary record, Rubio got key parts of the program wrong. A review of the policy and interviews with district leaders make it clear that PROMISE had nothing to do with Cruz's treatment by school officials; in fact, according to Superintendent Robert Runcie, Cruz wasn't even in PROMISE.

"Basically, people are trying to exploit an incident for whatever varied agendas they have," Runcie says.

Runcie says Rubio was not "properly advised" before his speech and calls reports casting blame on the district's policies erroneous and irresponsible and says they've fueled online conspiracy theories such as one claiming the superintendent is being paid off by former President Barack Obama.

"We have a program that actually is helping students and is successful, regardless of whether some may like the program or not," Runcie says.

In the days after the shooting, conservative blogs picked up a narrative later promoted by everyone from Limbaugh to Laura Ingraham that Broward had adopted a bleeding-heart disciplinary program because of a liberal, Obama-led effort to keep crime statistics down and criminals in schools. But that's not why PROMISE was adopted and ignores the fact that it was a bipartisan effort.

In fact, PROMISE began with Republican-proposed legislation signed in 2009 by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist directing districts to "use alternatives to expulsion or referral to law enforcement agencies unless the use of such alternatives will pose a threat to school safety." The law also states that "zero-tolerance policies are not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors, including, but not limited to, minor fights or disturbances."

At the time, a movement was building to rein in zero-tolerance policies that had resulted in severe consequences for in-school infractions, the vast majority of which were only misdemeanors. Research showed that once students were in the criminal justice system, they were likelier to stay there and that missing school decreased their chances of graduating. Additionally, a disproportionate number of arrested students had special needs or were black.

"When a youth gets into the juvenile justice system, everybody thinks their sins are forgiven when that youth turns 18, and I will assure you that doesn't happen," the bill's sponsor, Florida Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville), said before the legislation was passed. "It's a blemish on their record."

In Broward County, there was plenty of reason to act. The school district during the 2011-12 year reported the highest number of in-school arrests in the state. Students were being handcuffed and hauled away for what most would consider typical childhood misbehavior — charged with battery for throwing spitballs or disorderly conduct for yelling in class. Just like the state data, district data showed a disproportionate number of those students had disabilities or were minorities.

The district partnered with the offices of the sheriff, state attorney, public defender, and chief judge, as well as the NAACP, to rethink its disciplinary policies. In 2013, the group signed an agreement on how to handle student misbehavior, which encouraged resolving problems without law enforcement when appropriate. But the agreement explicitly emphasized that police had discretion and that felonies would not qualify under the plan.

"The agreement does not tie the hands of law enforcement from doing their job," says Michaelle Pope, the district's executive director of student support initiatives.

This agreement seems to be what Rubio referenced in his plan. But his comments were misleading: The agreement calls for a school administrator to consult with law enforcement as the second, not sixth, step if the student's conduct rises beyond the misdemeanor level or is a repeat offense.

As part of the effort, Broward Schools created a "discipline matrix" outlining what actions administrators should take about misbehavior ranging from tardiness to more serious infractions. Felonies trigger automatic reports to law enforcement, as do threats to harm a school, which is required by state law. For misdemeanors, administrators are directed to try to use a long list of alternatives meant to correct the underlying issue.

The district's disciplinary policy changes also included the creation of the PROMISE program. Though most reports have referred to the entire school discipline system as PROMISE, that's only one part. PROMISE offers interventions such as counseling and conflict resolution training to students who commit misdemeanors like bullying, harassment, fighting, and alcohol or marijuana use.

At the federal level, an Obama-era education law contained parts of the Youth PROMISE Act, which was filed annually for years and had support from conservatives. The law provides funding for Youth PROMISE plans, which are aimed at reducing exclusionary discipline practices.

Runcie won't discuss the specifics of Cruz's education and disciplinary record, which makes it difficult to evaluate what role, if any, district policies might have had in the many missed warning signs before his rampage. But contrary to Rubio's and other conservatives' claims, neither PROMISE nor the district's disciplinary system enforces policies preventing the arrest of a student who has made felony-level threats.

And that's exactly what Cruz had done before carrying out a mass killing. According to a Broward Sheriff's Office timeline, a deputy received a report that the teen had posted a comment on Instagram suggesting he "planned to shoot up the school." The deputy determined that Cruz had knives and a BB gun, but after the report was sent to Stoneman Douglas' school resource officer, Scot Peterson, nothing happened.

Students also went to Peterson after Cruz made death threats against them, BuzzFeed reported. Those threats would seem to rise to the felony level and require an arrest. Yet the Broward Sheriff's Office had reportedly never arrested Cruz and claimed on its Twitter account that none of the offenses appeared worthy of arrest.

Runcie says he does not know whether school administrators reported Cruz to law enforcement. The district is reviewing how it handled the teen's case, and until that effort is complete, the superintendent says, it would be premature to comment on whether anything should have been done differently.

Runcie defends PROMISE and the district's other disciplinary policies. Though Rubio isn't alone in criticizing the district's policies — Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran told Breitbart he wants to "do away" with PROMISE — Runcie says he has no plans to make changes.

"This is a false narrative that's being made for whatever agenda it might be," he says. "But we're not going to dismantle a program that's been successful in the district because of false information that's been out there."
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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas