Broward County

Four years later, alleged assault by Sheriff Israel's son becomes a news story

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel South Florida Sun Sentinel

In mid-February of 2014, two 17-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas students assaulted a 14-year-old baseball player near the high school stadium. They kicked the boy, a police report said, held him to the ground and simulated a sexual assault through the teen's clothing with a baseball bat.

One of the assailants was Broward Sheriff Scott Israel's son, Brett Israel, according to the incident report.

When the attack was reported to authorities, Brett Israel and the other 17-year-old, Anthony Broderick, were not arrested. They were suspended from the Parkland high school for three days based on the school's conclusion that they had committed a simple battery, and that the suspension was consistent with the Broward County School District's discipline "matrix."

The victim's parents approved the sanction, saying the suspension was the appropriate punishment and that any law enforcement action would have put their son through unnecessary trauma.

But then Nikolas Cruz took an assault rifle to the school on Feb. 14 of this year, and killed 17 students and educators, wounding 17 others.

A wounded student is carried to safety on the day of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. John McCall South Florida Sun Sentinel

The 2014 incident, long since forgotten, has emerged anew as copies of the report have circulated among parents and reporters for weeks. As a result, the incident has been published, first on a right-leaning news site, then on more traditional outlets.

Parents of some of the Feb. 14 victims, understandably upset with the Broward Sheriff's Office's response to the massacre — at least one deputy failed to enter the school even as Cruz pumped bullets into mortally wounded teens — are demanding that Israel and his son be held accountable, along with the deputy who wrote up the report of the assault. He is Scot Peterson, the same deputy who quit in disgrace after it was learned he never went inside the school to confront the shooter.

The sheriff's office is investigating — how the report got leaked.

A week ago, the hard-right website Gateway Pundit referenced the four-year-old report on the "brutal assault," and pointed out that the incident had been investigated by the in-school deputy. It asked: "Did Broward County Sheriff Israel's Son Get Special Treatment After Brutal School Crime?" The website then answered its own question: "It Sure Looks That Way."

WPLG Local 10 investigative reporter Bob Norman contacted the parents of several of Cruz's victims, and reported that they are demanding an investigation into the 2014 battery. Now-retired resource officer Peterson failed to do his job that day, parents told the reporter, just as he had failed four years later — with far more serious consequences.

"Scot Peterson failed to do his job again," Fred Guttenberg, father of slain student Jaime Guttenberg, told Norman. "It's just another example of a bad crime and somebody not being held accountable. It's kind of interesting the intersection of the same people."

A second right-leaning website, Townhall, citing Norman's reporting, said Brett Israel "partook in what appears to be a sexual assault," and suggested the existence of a "cover up." Townhall believes it is time for Scott Israel to resign. "What is going on with this department?" it asks.

Then on Friday afternoon, Fox News weighed in.

Lost in much of the reporting have been the views of the victim, and his family.

In interviews with the Miami Herald over the past two weeks, the now-adult man and his mother said the BSO report on the incident was an accurate portrayal and that the family decided not to press charges of its own accord.

"It's insulting for anyone to think I would be silenced or strong-armed or too dumb to pursue what was fair for my child," the mother told the Herald.

Still, she said the incident was traumatic for her son, who is now thriving in college.

"We just want to move on," she said.

Fred Guttenberg, after talking to the mother, is fine with that, he subsequently wrote on Facebook, indicating that he had not been told by the reporter of the family's feelings.

But in the current partisan environment, every tragedy can become an opportunity to score political points.

Gun control advocates around the country have seized on the Parkland tragedy to push for legislative solutions. Gun rights supporters, pushing back, have taken aim at permissive treatment of youthful lawbreakers, pointing out that Cruz exhibited bizarre and threatening behavior for years only to be given numerous second chances.

They zeroed in on a program called PROMISE, pioneered in Broward and championed by then-President Barack Obama, that sought to divert non-violent, non-serious offenders from the state juvenile justice system — and the potential for further incarceration.

Before his actions at the besieged Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School garnered him scorn and led to the end of his law enforcement career, Sheriff's Deputy Scot Peterson addresses a public meeting.

Kelly McBride, a vice president and media ethics professor at St. Petersburg's Poynter Institute journalism training center, said there's nothing new about political operatives taking pieces of deeply tragic news and "turning them into weapons." The 24-hour news cycle, the deeply polarized political system, and, most importantly, social media have been like fertilizer on the weed, though.

"We're in this really interesting place in the evolution of information," McBride said.

The police report involving Brett Israel had been an open secret in South Florida journalism circles for weeks.

Multiple media outlets had looked into the incident, spoken with the victim and his family and concluded that the encounter, while disturbing, had little relevance to what occurred on Feb. 14 of this year, almost exactly four years to the day after the stadium assault. The Herald is reporting it now because the incident is effectively in the public domain and some parents of victims remain disturbed by how the assault was handled.

After the Miami Herald requested the report from BSO, the department released it. In a strange twist, the names of the sheriff's son and his fellow assailant were redacted — while the name of their victim was not. That is the reverse of what most departments do. Underage victims are almost never identified.

The victim's mother said BSO's general counsel has told her it is investigating why the report was not properly redacted as well as how another entirely unredacted report was leaked to the news media in recent months.

In some respects, the story's trajectory was similar to that of the school district's PROMISE program, which was criticized by the sheriff's and school district's conservative foes in the aftermath of the massacre. They said Cruz could have been thwarted if he'd faced harsher discipline earlier in his school career.

Multiple media outlets chose not to write that story after Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie insisted Cruz had never been part of the PROMISE program. But that was before Miami's public radio affiliate, WLRN, produced a report contradicting Runcie. Cruz had, indeed, been assigned to PROMISE five years ago, though it appears he never actually participated.

Runcie says poor district record-keeping led him to provide reporters with erroneous information — not a desire to hide an inconvenient truth.

Parkland survivors themselves have been far more politically outspoken and active than those who witnessed and escaped previous mass shootings, including organizing a massive rally in the nation's capital.

On Friday, some of them staged a "die-in" protest at various Publix locations to express anger with the chain's political contributions to a Republican gubernatorial candidate, Adam Putnam, who is firmly aligned with the National Rifle Association. Publix announced just before the protest that it was suspending corporate political contributions.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High held a "die-in" Friday May 25, 2018, at a Publix in Coral Springs to protest the chain's financial support for a Republican gubernatorial candidate closely aligned with the National Rifle Association. Publix announced before the protest that it would suspend its program of political donations. Jose Iglesias

The police report involving Brett Israel leaves unclear precisely when the assault took place. It may have been Feb. 14, which would have been exactly four years before Cruz entered his former school with a semiautomatic rifle. The freshman told the school officer, Peterson, that "he was bullied" by Israel and Broderick as he left baseball practice. "He was sitting on the ground near the stadium entrance" when one of the boys started to kick him.

Broderick grabbed the victim's "groin area with his hand" and then "pushed" the 14-year-old's baseball bat against his buttocks., the report said. The 14-year-old "was fully clothed and there was no attempt to remove any clothing from [him] during the incident." Israel, the report said, held the victim by his ankles while Broderick wielded the bat.

The police report concluded that the encounter amounted to simple battery under the school system's disciplinary code, and the two older teens were suspended for three days. "The school district disciplinary matrix requires no law enforcement action," the report added.

The victim's parents "were notified regarding the school disciplinary action," the report said, "and advised they were satisfied" with the result.

The 14-year-old's mother said those statements were true. She said the assailants later apologized, though she said she would have appreciated hearing from the sheriff but didn't.

After the report was read to her over the phone, Broderick's mother disputed that it was accurate. She said it was wrong about who brandished the bat.

"Brett took the bat and started poking him," Claudia Mathis said. "That report was reversed."

Mathis was emailed the report and invited to comment further. She did not.

The victim's mother said the roles of the two boys were not reversed.

After this article was published online, Mathis sent an email saying her statement had been "distorted" and that the BSO report, which she had since reviewed, depicted "exactly what happened." She called the incident a case of "horse playing."

The Herald sought unsuccessfully to contact Brett Israel through Twitter, where he is active.

Stuart Kaplan, a private attorney for Sheriff Israel, said the case was handled appropriately. "There was absolutely not one scintilla of preferential treatment given to Brett Israel," Kaplan said. "What happened in this situation is absolutely consistent with good police work."

Kaplan said the incident becoming public could have "devastating consequences" on Brett Israel's life. Israel attends Florida Atlantic University, according to his LinkedIn page.

"To tar and feather him because some people think his father is not the leader they thought he was is terribly unfair," Kaplan said. "Brett Israel is an innocent party in this as well."

Peter Slevin, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who worked at the Herald decades ago, called deciding what to with such information difficult.

"It's more sensitive because children were involved. The right thing to do is to follow the evidence, see where it leads, and then make a thoughtful judgment of what happened, and what to publish," he said.

"It is right to see whether this young man's case was hidden because he has a powerful father. That is a legitimate point of inquiry. But if a fair-minded examination shows it was not an abuse of power, I'm not sure this teen's story should be out in public."

This report has been updated to include further comments from Claudia Mathis.

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