It was one of the worst mass shootings in American history – the murder of 17 students and adults at a Broward County, Florida, high school on Feb. 14, 2018.
In the wake of the horror at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, much of the media focused on the role that gun laws and mental illness played in Nikolas Cruz’s decision to perpetrate the massacre.
Paul Sperry's reporting led him elsewhere. He filed a series of stories for RealClearInvestigations that exposed a central but neglected factor in the killings: an Obama-era push that made school discipline more lenient across the country. The approach was pioneered in Broward and adopted by more than 50 major school districts around the country to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” diverting lawbreaking students away from the criminal justice system and into alternative programs.
One such student: Nikolas Cruz, whose lack of a criminal record allowed him to pass a background check and ultimately purchase the weapon he used in his murderous spree.
In 2013, the year before Cruz entered high school, the Broward County school system scrapped and rewrote its discipline policy to make it much more difficult for administrators to suspend or expel problem students, or for campus police to arrest them for misdemeanors– including some of the crimes Cruz allegedly committed in the years and months leading up to the deadly Feb. 14 shooting at his Fort Lauderdale-area school [including assault and weapons possession].Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie, left, at a funeral service for a Parkland victim.
To keep students in school and improve racial outcomes, Broward school Superintendent Robert W. Runcie – a Chicagoan and Harvard graduate with close ties to President Obama and his Education Department – signed an agreement with the county sheriff and other local jurisdictions to trade cops for counseling. Instead of the criminal justice system, students charged with various misdemeanors, including assault, were referred to counseling, which included participation in “healing circles,” obstacle courses and other “self-esteem building” exercises. …
In January 2014, his [Obama’s education] department issued new discipline guidelines strongly recommending that schools use law enforcement measures and out-of-school suspensions as a last resort. Announced jointly by Duncan and then-Attorney General Eric Holder, the new procedures came as more than friendly guidance from Uncle Sam – they also came with threats of federal investigations and defunding for districts that refused to fully comply.
Sperry followed up on March 19, revealing more details about the breadth of these programs. He reported that one effort, serving serious juvenile offenders, had returned almost 2,000 formerly incarcerated students back into school.
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]."
Sperry also reported that the school district has provided little information about these efforts to the community, leaving many residents frustrated and frightened.
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. …
“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.”
Sperry’s third story, published on April 15, detailed how lax school discipline policies were also contributing to a crime wave off campus. He wrote:
Nationwide: Post-Parkland outrage.
Records show such policies have failed to curtail other campus violence and its effects now on the rise in district schools — including fighting, weapons use, bullying and related suicides.
Meanwhile, murders, armed robberies and other violent felonies committed by children outside of schools have hit record levels, and some see a connection with what’s happening on school grounds. Since the relaxing of discipline, Broward youths have not only brazenly punched out their teachers, but terrorized Broward neighborhoods with drive-by shootings, gang rapes, home invasions and carjackings.
Broward County now has the highest percentage of “the most serious, violent [and] chronic” juvenile offenders in Florida, according to the county’s chief juvenile probation officer.
Sperry cited other statistics on a rise in bullying and suicides and suicide attempts in Broward. Then he reported:
Vigil for victims.
Nevertheless, school officials claim their efforts are a great success. Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie has said he has no plans to make changes in the program other than to “enhance” police presence on campuses to respond faster to potential school shootings. “We’re not going to dismantle a program that’s been successful in the district because of false information that’s been out there,” he said.
Sperry’s fourth story, published on Jan. 3, 2019, reported on two concerns of parents of Parkland victims, regarding the conduct of Broward County Sheriff Steve Israel: his refusal to fire a campus-based deputy who failed to enter the school during Cruz's rampage, and Israel's continued defense of lenient Obama-era school policies that allowed Cruz,to avoid a police record and thereby purchase the murder weapon.
Scot Peterson: Recommended only a suspension for sheriff's son accused in sex assault.
Some now think they have found the answer in a single incident that occurred in 2014. A police report shows that’s when Israel's then-17-year-old son, Brett, was accused of participating in a sexual assault of a 14-year-old boy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The case was investigated by Scot Peterson – the armed deputy who took cover while children and staff were shot last February. Using the Obama-era guidelines, Peterson’s recommendation helped his boss’s son receive just a three-day suspension.
Sperry’s fifth story along with two sidebars, published on Jan. 25, 2019, suggested the impact of his earlier reporting: the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Obama-era school discipline guidelines in the wake of the Parkland shootings.
While providing an overview of how school safety has been diminished by those policies, this article focuses on the Trump administration’s decision not to expressly link the Parkland massacre to them.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, center, flanked by HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, fellow members of the Federal Commission on School Safety.
For fear of being labeled racist, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stopped short of linking the Parkland, Fla., school massacre to lenient Obama-era discipline policies aimed at reducing suspensions and arrests of minority students, say staffers and others involved in an investigation of school safety led by her.
Education Department officials, as well as investigation witnesses, said DeVos and co-commissioner Jeff Sessions, then the U.S. attorney general, thought it would be politically radioactive to single out the race-based policies for blame in the tragedy, despite the evidence, so they excluded it entirely from the final report.
This pleased no one. Civil rights groups, Democrats and others still accused the administration of being insensitive to black children by rescinding the Obama-era policies. But also offended were parents of Parkland shooting victims, who partly blame lenient discipline policies for the Feb. 14 bloodbath.