Education

Did discipline diversion program fail Parkland? Superintendent vows improved policies.

Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie talks to reporters at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, February 23, 2018, as teachers and staff returned to the school.
Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie talks to reporters at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, February 23, 2018, as teachers and staff returned to the school. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Broward County is taking a closer look at how schools address punishment amid criticism that its controversial PROMISE program encouraged a culture of lax discipline throughout the district.

Some critics, including the family of a student wounded in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, blame the program for failing to intercept mass shooter Nikolas Cruz before he killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day. Miami Herald news partner WLRN revealed Sunday that Cruz was assigned to the PROMISE diversion program in 2013 but never showed up — contrary to previous statements from the district that he had “no affiliation” with the program.

The PROMISE program — an acronym for Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education — was a diversion program that sent students who committed specific misdemeanors to counseling at an alternative school instead of the criminal justice system.

In the first school board meeting since the revelation, Superintendent Robert Runcie on Tuesday told board members that the district’s auditing team will review school discipline records and that a letter would be sent out to schools by the end of the week reiterating the district’s “zero tolerance policy” that all discipline must be reported.

“We continue to hear comments about the lack of consistency, if you will, in terms of how discipline may or may not be implemented in school,” he said.

A former teacher at Silver Lakes Elementary School told the board that when she was faced with a student who got into fights, cursed and threw desks, an administrator returned the second referral she wrote for the offending student.

“I was told 'don’t write referrals on the same student, it makes our school look bad’,” said Julie Ganas.

Runcie also wants to create a “climate and discipline department” to better monitor students. He said the new department, which he'd like to see form by the end of the school year, would "enhance coordination and oversight" over discipline.

Those measures will come on top of new requirements set forth by Senate Bill 7026, which include improving communication and sharing data between school districts and outside agencies, tracking and coordinating mental health referrals and launching a smartphone app called Fortify Florida in August, which will allow anyone to report threats.

Runcie also doubled down on the PROMISE program, telling the board, “PROMISE is in many ways synonymous with love, forgiveness, compassion and relationships that our youth need so desperately to be successful.”

The PROMISE program was created to stem the school-to-prison pipeline in Broward County, which at the time had the highest student arrest rate in the state.

But although Cruz was referred to the fledgling program in 2013 for an act of vandalism in middle school, Runcie told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that district attendance records indicate that Cruz completed the intake process at Pine Ridge Education Center in Fort Lauderdale, but was back at West Glades Middle the next day.

He emphasized that the district is still reviewing Cruz's records.

"We are reviewing information to confirm where he attended and what services he was receiving," Runcie said.

Since the Parkland school shooting and subsequent revelations of Cruz’ history of alarming behavior, the PROMISE program has become a target of critics who believe the program’s work to cut down on arrests allowed more serious offenders — like Cruz — to escape consequences and build up to worse behavior.

None of those critics, however, spoke at the meeting.

The former principal of Collins Elementary School, Lincoln Pasteur, told the board that without PROMISE, behavior issues would be “tenfold.”

“Programs like PROMISE we need more of, not fewer,” he said. “Is it perfect? I’d be the first to say no. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It can be better.”

PROPERTY TAX INCREASE?

The School Board also on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution to put a referendum on the Aug. 28 ballot that would raise about $93 million a year through 2023.

To comply with new school safety measures that critics say are underfunded by Tallahassee, Broward County needs money to pay for armed guards at schools. The district also wants to give teachers raises and is looking to taxpayers to foot the bill.

The referendum still needs approval from the Broward County Commission, but if passed, the property tax hike would cost an additional 50 cents for every $1,000 in assessed property value, according to the Sun Sentinel. For a homeowner with a $225,000 home and a homestead exemption, that would be about $100 a year.

The money would go toward the salaries of school resource officers, including those in individual charter schools with more than 900 students; hiring district school security staff, increasing compensation to recruit and retain teachers; and other expenses in the classroom.

In a statement through a district spokeswoman, chief financial officer Judith Marte said the district has not determined how the $92.8 million would be allocated among the initiatives.

"If the referendum is successful, there will be ample opportunity for public input prior to any Board action regarding the allocation," she wrote.

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