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At the same time the Broward County school system was dismantling the “school-to-prison pipeline” under policies that failed to stop accused shooter Nikolas Cruz, it was building another pipeline, funneling back into regular classrooms thousands of other potentially dangerous students released from local jails, county and school district records reveal.

Through a little-known “re-engagement" program for serious juvenile offenders, the Florida district has “transitioned" back to school almost 2,000 incarcerated students, a number comparable to student bodies at many high schools, according to district data obtained by RealClearInvestigations. Local probation officers warn that these offenders have a high risk of reoffending.

Another initiative, the Behavior Intervention Program, attempts to mainstream a smaller number of “students who exhibit severe, unmanageable behavior,” according to a 2017-2018 program handbook, including those who are “convicted of a serious crime such as rape, murder, attempted murder, sexual battery or firearm related [offense]."

Cypress Run Education Center in Pompano Beach, a high-security alternative school where released offenders are sent temporarily. Top photo: One of the student protests nationwide against guns last week, reacting to the Parkland shooting (AP).

The number of returning felons and other serious offenders has climbed each year since Broward Schools Supt. Robert Runcie, a close ally of President Obama, started the program in 2013 as part of his crusade to “end the school-to-prison pipeline,” which he says has disproportionately harmed young African-American men.

The next year, district officials worked with county prosecutors, probation officers and judges to release and return 325 incarcerated students to area schools. The number grew to 570 in the 2015 school year, before rising to 967 in 2016, the latest available figure provided to RCI by the district.

A Broward County schools spokeswoman declined to provide specific examples of crimes that had been committed by the returning offenders. But county juvenile court statistics show that Broward students between the ages of 10 and 17 arrested from 2014-2016 were charged with a range of serious crimes, including: murder, manslaughter, armed robbery, car theft, aggravated assault, battery, sex offenses, weapons violations, vandalism, drug charges and other felonies related to gang activity.

With the encouragement of the Obama Education Department, Broward County schools in 2013 signed a pioneering agreement with law enforcement that made the police and schools partners in a social experiment of relaxed juvenile-crime enforcement to reduce racial disparities in arrests and incarceration. The agreement called, in many circumstances, for the police to speak with school officials before deciding whether to arrest any student, white or minority, for misdemeanor crimes that had previously warranted arrest. In thousands of cases, the offenders were not sent to court but to counseling, which included participation in “healing circles,” obstacle courses and other “self-esteem building” exercises.

Cruz, who now faces the death penalty for allegedly murdering 17 people last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, benefited from this policy. He was never booked for a series of arrestable offenses, which is one reason he could pass a background check and purchase the weapon he used in the mass shooting.

But Broward County took its approach even further with lesser-known efforts. It actively re-enrolled in mainstream schools the students who couldn’t avoid arrest even under the lenient new approach, because their offenses – including violent misdemeanors and felonies – were so serious.

Robert Runcie, Broward schools superintendent. 

To help place students convicted of felonies back in school, Runcie has assigned school district staff to personally advocate for them, while shepherding them through the court system after their arrests and even managing their cases, district and other documents show. Working alongside public defenders and advocacy groups, and making tens of thousands of court appearances each year, they have persuaded prosecutors and judges in the Broward County juvenile justice system to release thousands of incarcerated students back into the custody of their parents and school authorities.

Broward Juvenile Delinquency Division Judge Elijah H. Williams endorses Runcie’s policies and spoke in support of them at the district’s 2013 ceremony for the signing of the collaboration agreement with law enforcement.

These efforts have raised new concerns about the impact of Runcie’s discipline policies on school safety. While other schools help serious offenders continue their education while incarcerated, Broward is unusual in proactively working for their release to mainstream them back into their home schools.

“Broward compromised safety by systematically lowering behavioral standards, but it is worse than anyone has even suspected,” said Max Eden, an education policy expert and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Broward school officials declined to comment on such criticisms.

Just how effectively the program is working – whether returning offenders are benefiting from a second chance or harming others, or if the picture is mixed -- remains an open question because the school district declines to provide details, case studies or outcomes.

Cassandra Evans, Broward County’s chief juvenile probation officer, has issued a general warning that juveniles transitioning out of secure detention have a high recidivism rate. “This population is highly at risk of reoffending within the first 45 days [of release],” she said at a recent Department of Juvenile Justice advisory board meeting.

Some critics complain that the entire program is shrouded in secrecy.

“I know about the program and I’m against it,” said Lowell Levine, founder and president of the Stop Bullying Now Foundation in Lake Worth, Fla., in Palm Beach County about 30 miles north of the Parkland school. “But the majority of parents have no clue about the program, or that their child could be sitting next to a violent convicted gang member.”

Shock and grief outside the Parkland school on Feb. 14 after the massacre. 

Levine says he regularly fields complaints from victims of Broward school crimes, and is consulting with survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting and their parents. He said many of the incarcerated students being recycled back into schools are members of local gangs responsible for a recent rash of home invasions, burglaries, armed robberies and car thefts plaguing the county, which includes Fort Lauderdale.

 “They’re the reason these gangs control some schools,” he said. “They get out of juvi and go back into schools, where they recruit younger kids and run drugs through the schools."

Levine does not oppose efforts to help these students but does not believe that mainstreaming them is the best approach.

"They shouldn’t be brought back into traditional schools,” Levine added. "They need to be in alternative schools. They need mentors, they need guidance counselors.”

While some convicted offenders have been sent to Cypress Run Education Center in Pompano Beach – a high-security alternative school where released delinquents and kids with severe behavior problems who have committed expellable offenses are sent temporarily – records show almost 60 percent have been reassigned to the schools they attended before incarceration. These mainstreamed students typically get additional support, such as weekly counseling, at their schools.

Offenders assigned to Cypress Run — where students are frisked as they exit the school bus, wanded for weapons and assigned adult “escorts” throughout the building — can transition back to their home school within 90-180 days. “Successful completion of the program will result in students’ return to their home school,” a center behavior manual states. Strikingly, students who continue to break the law — including committing felonies such as arson, bomb threats and the use of a weapon in a fight — are not re-arrested but rather removed "from the classroom for a period of time.”

The jail-to-school re-engagement program, which is formally known as Juvenile Justice Educational and Transition Support, is run by David L. Watkins, director of the Broward district's Office of Equity and Academic Attainment. EEA’s primary function is the oversight of "educational outcomes for court-involved students," which includes providing instruction within the Department of Juvenile Justice jails and “transition of DJJ youth back to district schools."

“Equity & Academic Attainment has created a comprehensive plan that addresses the needs of our most fragile students,” Watkins' office website says. "Many of our students are Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) involved and/or at-risk.”

A "2016-2017 Master Plan” outlining the program could not be called up from the EAA website. A number of other sensitive policy documents on the Broward schools website, including ones concerning “social justice and implicit bias initiatives," also could not be accessed. Despite repeated requests, the district’s chief public information officer, Tracy Clark, would not provide the documents further detailing Broward’s program for bringing incarcerated students back into schools.

Like Runcie, Clark came to Broward from the Chicago public school system, where she served as director of "IT and Web services" and where they both worked under Superintendent Arne Duncan, before President Obama tapped him as his education secretary. Duncan encouraged Runcie's reforms in Broward (timeline).

Watkins, who was involved in Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative for mentoring young black men, did not respond to requests for comment. But last year, he told the Department of Juvenile Justice advisory board for the Broward circuit that he and other officials “have worked hard to reduce the number of kids in detention and residential facilities.” Watkins serves on the board with Chairwoman Marsha Ellison, the local NAACP leader who helped Runcie draft the anti-arrest agreement with law enforcement.

The achievement gap "becomes intensified in the school-to-prison pipeline, where black males are disproportionately represented,” Runcie has said. District documents say the jail-to-school transitioning is intended to fulfill a social goal of including “all students,” but especially those of color, in the traditional school setting and out of the juvenile justice system, where they can lose valuable classroom time, be “stigmatized" by criminal records and pushed deeper into the state prison system.

“We’re not going to continue to arrest our kids,” he has vowed.

The district is also attempting to transition students charged with major violent crimes from secure, out-of-county juvenile detention facilities back to schools, even though all juvenile offenders receive instructional support from teachers inside detention facilities and for the duration of their incarceration.

During the 2016-2017 school year, the so-called Behavior Intervention Committee assigned 88 students to the program, records show. The panel convenes twice a month and was slated to meet March 15 to review a new round of cases.

“Through the structures provided in this program,” the Behavior Intervention Program website says, “it is expected that students will acquire the necessary skills to enable them to optimally function in the traditional school setting.”

Area juvenile prison populations have shrunk as more and more high-risk offenders are funneled back into the Broward school system.

Department of Juvenile Justice records show that the number of high-risk Broward youth sentenced by a judge to extended confinement at “residential” detention facilities has dropped markedly since 2013, when Runcie implemented his re-engagement programs. In 2017, residential commitments fell 39 percent to 178 from a peak of 294 in 2013.

Other data suggest the district has been mainstreaming more high-risk youth into traditional schools.

Even though Broward’s overall school enrollment grew between 2013 and 2017, enrollment at Cypress Run and the district’s other behavior-modification centers has dropped by almost 1,000 students, district enrollment tables show.

Broward is the nation’s sixth-largest school district, with more than 270,000 students. African-Americans make up 40 percent of the student population, and account for 74 percent of the juvenile arrests in the county.

To reduce the “disproportionality” of black student incarceration, district officials are also working with a nonprofit group called Juvenile Predisposition Services to “screen and select youth for release [from] secure detention,” according to advisory board minutes.

Since 2016, the JPS group has helped reintegrate at least 94 incarcerated Broward County students, with funding from the progressive Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Critics of Broward’s approach say they support efforts to rehabilitate youthful offenders but believe current policies are not appropriate. "No mom would feel safe knowing that her daughter is sitting next to a felon,” Eden said. "This does students who have committed serious crimes no favors, either — they need more specialized support than a mainstream school can offer."

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