Parents of children gunned down in the Parkland school shooting in Florida last year have never understood two actions taken by Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel: his refusal to fire a campus-based deputy who failed to enter the school during the rampage that took 17 lives, and his continued defense of controversial Obama-era school policies that allowed the accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, to avoid arrest and a police record and thereby purchase the murder weapon.
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.
“Everyone in this county is wondering why Peterson was allowed to retire so quickly and take his pension,” said local attorney Alex Arreaza, who represents victims of the school tragedy. “Normally deputies would not be allowed to retire under those circumstances, but in this case, Peterson was allowed to. This report gives a plausible reason,” he said.
According to the four-page report filed by Peterson, the victim, who was a freshman at the time, alleged that Israel, then the school’s starting quarterback, held him down while another senior kicked him, grabbed his genitals and rammed a baseball bat between his buttocks, simulating rape.
People familiar with the case say Peterson could have referred Israel for felony charges, but reduced the crime to “simple battery,” making him eligible for a leniency program requiring no arrest. “The school district’s disciplinary matrix requires no law enforcement action required regarding the incident,” the deputy wrote.
“A child was sexually assaulted and Peterson reduced the charges to fit a matrix and report it as information. This allowed the deputy to put it away and not do anything,” said Arreaza, who is suing both Israel and Peterson on behalf of Anthony Borges, a Stoneman Douglas student who survived the massacre, despite being shot five times.
Arreaza said that the same lax disciplinary culture meant Cruz was never expelled or sent to the juvenile justice system despite committing multiple offenses every year throughout middle and high school. Peterson was warned at least twice of the threat Cruz posed as an active shooter, but failed to investigate the matter. Peterson had an office on the Stoneman Douglas campus, where he’d been posted for nine years.
Though armed with a handgun, Peterson failed to go into the building to confront the shooter when he opened fire last Feb. 14. He took position behind two concrete walls outside the building and never fired a shot, even though the suspect stopped five times to reload. With a single AR-15 semi-automatic rifle reloaded from a vest he wore that held 30-round magazines, Cruz allegedly managed to fire more than 140 rounds inside the building, slaughtering 17, including both students and teachers, and wounding another 17, including Borges.
While Israel publicly criticized Peterson for inaction during the shooting, he didn’t fire his deputy, instead letting him resign and receive a public pension of almost $105,000 a year (not including health-care benefits). The 55-year-old Peterson will collect monthly payments of more than $8,700 for the rest of his life.
Arreaza suspects that Israel protected Peterson because the deputy protected his son from prosecution, adding that Israel tried to keep the four-year-old incident report under tight wraps. After the report was leaked to him, Arreaza said that “a BSO [Broward Sheriff’s Office] attorney called me to try to scare me into not doing anything with it." RealClearInvestigations has obtained a full, unredacted copy of the report, but is withholding the name of the victim.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow died in the shooting, speculated that Peterson’s dispensing of the case provided him with “job security.” Pollack is also suing Peterson, whom he's slammed as “the coward of Broward.”
Attempts to reach Peterson were unsuccessful, but his attorney issued a statement asserting that claims he acted negligently are “patently untrue.” The Broward Sheriff’s Office declined comment. However, it recently said the investigation into Peterson’s response at the scene is ongoing.
Now attending Florida Atlantic University, Brett Israel did not respond to requests for comment, although a family lawyer said he received no special treatment from his powerful father. (Brett Israel's Twitter account, where he has repeatedly defended his father, was suspended last year.)
Parkland parents and their lawyers believe one reason for Sheriff Israel’s continued defense of a controversial no-arrest pact he signed with Broward County Public Schools to divert offenders from jail to counseling is that his son benefited from the lenient policy.
The 2013 agreement, known generally as the PROMISE program, was designed to reduce school-based arrests for minor offenses and stop the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline” disproportionately affecting minorities.
“We can only measure our success by the kids we keep out of jail, not the kids we put in jail,” Sheriff Israel said at the November 2013 signing ceremony. “Our kids need to be in schools, not jails.”
Despite misgivings expressed by police and prosecutors behind closed doors, as student arrests plummeted in 2016, Israel boasted, “We have drastically cut down on juvenile arrests” by giving school criminals who under previous rules would have been arrested “second, third chances.”
Cruz was one of those repeat offenders.
All told, "BCPS documented nearly 70 incidents involving Cruz in its incident computer system,” according to a draft report of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. “BCPS disciplinary referral system also contained nearly 55 school incidents involving Cruz.”
“Administrators were made aware of multiple felonies -- including death threats and weapons possession – but they did nothing about it because of the discipline policies,” Manhattan Institute senior fellow Max Eden told RealClearInvestigations. Eden has co-authored a forthcoming book on the tragedy, “Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies that Created the Parkland Shooter and Endangered America’s Students.”
Cruz kept getting breaks under the PROMISE program (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support & Education). It allowed even chronic offenders, including Cruz, to “reset" their discipline records to zero infractions at the end of each school year, making them appear like first-time offenders.
The embattled Sheriff Israel, who has been the subject of no fewer than 10 formal complaints (mostly involving public charges of excessive use of police force, all dismissed), has come under mounting pressure to resign. His critics include not only parents whose children were killed but the police union that represents Broward’s 1,400 deputies, as well as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association has formally called for his resignation.
Even longtime boosters in the local media have turned against him.
Last week, after standing by Israel in the wake of the shooting, the South Florida Sun Sentinel published a scathing editorial blasting him for “failed leadership” and demanding his removal from office. The paper cited the newly released state commission report exposing embarrassing new revelations about Israel, including how he changed the word “shall” to “may” when it came to an officer confronting an active shooter.
Israel, who after the school massacre touted his own “amazing leadership," said he has “no plans to resign." Elected to a second term in 2016, Israel has been called the most powerful Democrat in Florida’s most Democratic county. He plans to run for another four-year term, but he may not make it to the 2020 election. It’s widely believed that Florida Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, a Republican, will remove Israel from office after the Jan. 8 inauguration and before the anniversary of the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland.
In 2013, Israel jointly developed the no-arrest PROMISE program with Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie as part of a crusade first launched in 2011 by the Obama administration to end disproportionate arrests and suspensions of minority students. It required school districts to report data on discipline disparities by race and close racial gaps in suspensions and arrests. The national policy, known as the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, was announced in July 2011 by then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Runcie’s former boss and longtime mentor. Three months later, on Duncan’s recommendation, Runcie was hired by the Broward school board. Records show Runcie met with Obama officials in the White House as he put the policy into practice at the largest school district in the country.
As Runcie pioneered the most lenient discipline policies in the nation, the administration pumped millions of dollars in education grants into his district. More than 50 other large school districts adopted similar programs as the administration opened race-bias investigations and threatened funding cuts for those who failed to comply with the lower disciplinary standards.
Last month, the Trump administration revoked the Obama policy, formalized in a January 2014 guidance letter to all public school districts, arguing it has led to increased violence in schools.
The Florida state safety commission’s draft report also revealed that the Broward district has been systematically underreporting crimes committed on campus since revising its discipline policies, helping it appear that the PROMISE program and its required “restorative justice” counseling sessions were working to reduce the number of students who reoffend and control overall crime on campus.
Officials at Stoneman Douglas, for example, failed to report dozens of instances of violence, bullying, theft, robbery and trespassing in the 2016-2017 school year, making the school look much safer than it was prior to the shooting.
New Renaissance Middle School in Miramar, Fla., reported no cases of bullying in 2015-2016, even though coed Jayla Cofer successfully sued Broward schools in 2016 after she was sent to the emergency room by a gang of violent girls, none of whom was arrested. Her attackers were d diverted to the PROMISE program, where they received counseling.
Arreaza charged in a complaint filed Dec. 21 in Broward County court that school officials have pressured teachers and staff not to report crimes committed by students like Cruz.
In an interview with RealClearInvestigations, he said they also routinely pressured Peterson and other school resource officers to “downgrade” serious crimes, including violent felonies.
Just weeks before the Stoneman Douglas massacre, for example, a sophomore band member at the high school was violently attacked by another student, Arreaza said. The assailant broke his nose, but he wasn’t arrested for assault. Instead, school officials assigned him to a diversionary program where he received counseling.
“The crime was actually an aggravated assault, which is a felony, but it was reduced to a misdemeanor,” said Arreaza, who represents the victim. When the boy’s parents complained, “Deputy Peterson told the parents he isn’t allowed to arrest anyone.”
Other sources confirmed that arrests are discouraged across the board by the administration.
One longtime deputy assigned to Broward schools, who insisted on anonymity, said that a top official in the superintendent’s office “asked us not to arrest students for felonies in addition to misdemeanors,” even though the 2013 agreement explicitly emphasized that police had final discretion and that felonies would not qualify under the no-arrest plan.
The sheriff even mirrored the no-arrest policy at the county jail.
In a related program, Israel agreed to back off arrests of students who commit various crimes outside of schools, offering them civil citations and the same “restorative justice" counseling in lieu of incarceration, even for repeat offenders. Restorative justice is a controversial alternative punishment in which delinquents gather in “healing circles” with counselors – and sometimes even the victims of their crime – and discuss their feelings and the "root causes" of their anger and actions.
Within two years of adopting the discipline reforms, Broward's juvenile recidivism rate surged higher than the Florida state average. The negative trends continued through 2017, the most recent juvenile crime data show.
Cruz wasn’t the only dangerous threat who avoided referral to the juvenile justice system.
The district also previously diverted other boys, who brought guns to school and threatened to go on shooting rampages, from the criminal justice system and into alternative programs. In October 2016, for instance, a would-be teen shooter at Coral Springs High School was sent to counseling and was not charged with a crime.
The safety commission found that Broward public schools average two threat assessments per day. In just the first half of 2018, the district had completed approximately 390 behavioral threat assessments.
Cruz, 19, faces the death penalty if convicted of 17 counts of murder in the Valentine’s Day massacre.