The Broward County school district had another chance to defend its controversial diversion program, known as PROMISE, on Thursday – this time in front of the parents, sheriffs and officials charged with making Florida schools safer in light of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
But board members left with more questions than answers.
“We need to dig deep into this PROMISE program,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
The district at first denied that Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 students and school staff in February, was part of the program. PROMISE was designed in 2013 to cut down on Broward’s in-school arrests, which were the highest in the state at the time and disproportionately affected minority students.
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Recently the district revealed Cruz was referred to PROMISE that year for vandalism in a middle school bathroom. He arrived for the intake process, but was back at his regular school the next day.
Currently, when a student is referred to PROMISE it sets off a series of documented actions. The students show up on an electronic list. Their parents are notified. A bus takes them to the alternate location where they receive treatment and services in lieu of suspension or arrest.
In the state's safety commission's second meeting at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on Thursday, Ryan Petty, a Broward School Board candidate and father of Alaina Petty who was among those killed at Stoneman Douglas, asked district Student Support Initiatives Executive Director Michaelle Pope if the electronic intake process was in place when Cruz was referred to the program in 2013.
Pope said that process was not in place then, but that she also couldn’t speak about Cruz “because I don’t have that information.”
Five years after the program was implemented, Pope presented data that showed how nearly one in five of the district’s 270,000 students are still suspended every year. Of those 50,000 students, just 4 percent are referred to the program.
Even as the district touted the program’s success, without providing exact figures on in-school arrests, referrals to the PROMISE program have dropped steadily in recent years, down from 4,500 to about 2,000 since 2015. Pope also did not provide data that showed if it curbed arrests among minority students.
Commission members asked for additional data, including demographic information, and clarification on how the program works.
“It’s mind boggling to think — what is the purpose and does it accomplish anything?” said Schachter, the father of slain student Alex Schachter.
The commission will put together a report for the Governor by January, with the help of 15 full-time investigators that are requesting interviews and documents. A “voluminous” amount of documents arrived from the Broward school district when the meeting ended at 5:30 p.m.
After Pope’s presentation, Timothy Sternberg, a former principal at Pine Ridge Education Center, one of the PROMISE program locations, said there were holes in her presentation.
“The supports mentioned earlier don’t really exist,” he said. “There’s currently a disconnection between [the Department of Juvenile Justice] and PROMISE.”
Sternberg said there are problems with the program: black students are overrepresented and the services are more reactive than proactive.
Echoing Polk County Sheriff Judd’s wish for a deeper dive on PROMISE, State Sen. Lauren Book called Sternberg’s comments “deeply, deeply troubling.”
Gualtieri, who made it clear it was not yet known how much of an impact, if any, the PROMISE program had on Cruz, told commission members they would have the chance to ask more questions when Pope returns for the next commission meeting, which is scheduled to be held July 10 and 11.
“I assure you we’re not done with the PROMISE program.”