A compassionate program designed to keep youngsters out of the criminal justice system was implemented five years ago in Broward County, Florida - the very county where 17 people died Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Now, The Promise Program, as it’s known, is coming under attack. If critics succeed in dismantling it - along with similar programs across the nation - it would be a tragic footnote to an already horrific event.
The debate centers on the role of police officers at schools. Many, myself included, believe on-duty cops should be stationed outside all schools, at least as long as the nation’s gun epidemic goes unchecked.
However, many teachers and civil rights advocates oppose having police on campuses because of an under-publicized issue of deep and legitimate concern. It’s referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
In some districts where police are assigned to protect schools they wind up arresting students for minor offenses - many of which were previously handled by a school’s staff. Worse, statistics show that minority students are disproportionately targeted. Students get a criminal record and entry into a pipeline that, too often, leads to prison.
The Promise Program was created to balance the need for police protection with the objective of keeping kids out of the pipeline. It is a collaboration between the Broward school district and local law enforcement agencies. Before launching the program, Broward County had the most school-related arrests in Florida, the majority of which were for minor crimes and misdemeanors.
“Across the country,” the Broward document notes, “students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students are disproportionately impacted by school-based arrests for the same behavior as their peers.”
The Promise Program outlines how police and school officials should interact. Misdemeanors including theft of less than $300, vandalism under $1,000, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and possession of small quantities of marijuana, along with other relatively minor offenses, are dealt with by school administrators and not police officers stationed on campuses.
According to the Broward sheriff, Scott Israel, the results have been “excellent.” He told CNN: “What this program does is not put a person 14, 15 or 16 years old into the criminal justice system.”
Regrettably, The Promise Program and others like it are coming under attack by conservatives. They contend that the Promise guidelines dissuaded authorities from properly dealing with the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, while he attended Stoneman Douglas. Some, including radio host Rush Limbaugh, even go so far as to suggest that the deputy assigned to the school failed to enter the building during the shooting because of some misinterpretation of the guidelines.
Jake Tapper, the CNN anchor who interviewed Sheriff Israel, was off base when he echoed Limbaugh and the NRA in conflating Promise guidelines and the Cruz case. “Weren’t there incidents committed by the shooter as a student,” he asked, “that if this new policy hadn’t been in place, he would have been arrested and not able to legally buy a gun?”
To be clear: Cruz was expelled from the school for disciplinary reasons a year before the shootings and specifics regarding his expulsion have not be released. As for The Promise Program, it clearly states that emergency situations shall require “the immediate involvement of law enforcement.”
To fault Broward County’s compassionate efforts to keep its children safe while also helping them avoid falling into the juvenile justice system, is outrageous.
The massacre was the tragic result of a perfect storm in which every system and protocol failed. The FBI, the sheriff, school officials, the deputy on duty - and lawmakers who have dithered in dealing with gun control - all must live with the fact that they could have done more to avoid 17 deaths.
If police are needed at schools to protect students and teachers, so be it. But dismantling programs like Florida’s Promise initiative won’t make kids safer; rather, it would reopen a pipeline that needlessly ruins lives.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.