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Fla. County's Discipline Program Questioned After School Shooting


We now know more about the school history of Nikolas Cruz. He's the former student who opened fire in a Florida high school killing 17 people. The question is how the school handled his past disciplinary problems. School officials had denied that he took part in a program that gave some young people special treatment. Our colleagues at member station WLRN reports that Cruz was assigned to that program. Here's reporter Jessica Bakeman.

JESSICA BAKEMAN, BYLINE: In 2012, more kids were getting arrested at school in Broward County than any other district in Florida. The new superintendent, Robert Runcie, had recently come to Broward from Chicago's public schools. He wanted to do something about it.


ROBERT RUNCIE: We had a significant number of youth that were being suspended from school or arrested for what are considered minor infractions.

BAKEMAN: So he brainstormed with law enforcement, prosecutors and civil rights groups. They came up with PROMISE. It allows students who commit 1 of 13 misdemeanors at school to get therapy, instruction in conflict resolution and anger management and, if they need it, substance abuse treatment instead of a criminal record.

LUSESITA GONZALEZ: I acted out of anger and I didn't really know how to control that anger. But I came to the PROMISE program, and they really showed me how to cope with my anger.

BAKEMAN: Lusesita Gonzalez is 13. She went to the PROMISE program for three days last week after having what she called a blowup at school. She told the crowd at a community forum last night that PROMISE taught her how to channel her negative feelings into drawing and playing sports rather than hurting others.

LUSESITA: It gives kids the second chance that they never had.

BAKEMAN: Most students in PROMISE are there because of fighting or drugs. The district's data show about 9 out of 10 students don't commit another infraction that would send them back to PROMISE. Runcie again.


RUNCIE: We know it's successful.

BAKEMAN: PROMISE is based on a similar program in Clayton County, Ga., near Atlanta. Others have popped up too in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The Obama administration highlighted PROMISE amid its own push to reform school discipline. But PROMISE has attracted a lot of negative attention since the shooting on February 14.


LAURA INGRAHAM: By turning Broward schools and those across the nation into these social justice petri dishes, they may have facilitated a lunatic.

BAKEMAN: Fox News host Laura Ingraham took aim at PROMISE along with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, another high-profile critic. Locally, some students and parents argue PROMISE is an example of what they say is a lax attitude toward discipline more broadly. They worry district policies could have allowed the now confessed Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz to avoid arrest for a vandalism incident five years ago.

ALEX ARREAZA: If you have that atmosphere, how could you think nothing's going to happen?

BAKEMAN: Alex Arreaza is an attorney representing a 15-year-old who was shot five times on February 14.

ARREAZA: Eventually, Nikolas Cruz was going to come around.

BAKEMAN: Runcie has called it reprehensible that anyone would try to claim the PROMISE program is related to the shooting.


RUNCIE: Nikolas Cruz had no connection to the PROMISE program.

BAKEMAN: But this week, Runcie retracted the claim after two sources told member station WLRN that Cruz had in fact been assigned to PROMISE. However, the district says Cruz never went. Students called out Runcie during the community forum last night.


HUNTER POLLACK: You said there was no connection between the killer and the PROMISE program.

KENNETH PRESTON: It turns out that those statements were false.

BAKEMAN: However, supporters of the program are touting the successes of PROMISE and even asking the community to help them improve it rather than push to abandon it. The superintendent and the school board say they remain committed to giving students opportunities to make up for their mistakes. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Bakeman in Broward County, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRONTIDE'S "TONITRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.