Two years ago Friday, a 19-year-old former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, opened fire at the school, killing 17 people and injuring 17 more. The tragic events of Feb. 14, 2018, sparked a heated debate about gun control and the measures that could have been taken to avoid the deaths of so many innocent people.
While some, like Parkland survivor David Hogg, have claimed that stricter gun control could have prevented the horrific realities of that day, Andy Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting, places more blame on the lax disciplinary measures in place at the school district.
Pollack argues that if documented concerns from both teachers and students had been taken seriously, accused shooter Nikolas Cruz would have received proper treatment and consequences, and would not have been able to carry out the shooting.
The PROMISE Program
In the months following the shooting, the Broward County school district and its superintendent, Robert Runcie, came under scrutiny over the district’s alternative punishment program, known as the PROMISE program.
At first, the district denied Cruz’s involvement in the program altogether, according to WLRN. Just over a month after the shooting, Runcie published an Op-Ed fighting back against the media’s inquires.
But the Op-Ed included a curious specification.
“Contrary to media reports, the district has no record of Nikolas Cruz committing a PROMISE eligible infraction or being assigned to PROMISE while in high school,” he wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The superintendent’s specificity triggered a red flag for Pollack.
“‘Never while in high school.’ Why would he say that? He was a Harvard-educated guy trying to be manipulative and I just knew this guy was covering up something and lying,” Pollack told The Western Journal.
Soon after Runcie denounced any connection between the PROMISE program and Cruz, however, WLRN reported that Cruz had in fact been referred to the program in 2013 after he broke a bathroom faucet at his middle school.
According to a Broward Public Schools PDF, the PROMISE program is “designed to address the unique needs of students (Grades K-12), who have committed a specific non-violent behavioral infraction that would normally lead to a juvenile delinquency arrest and, therefore, entry into the juvenile justice system.”
A student can be qualify for the program if they commit one of 13 specific misdemeanors, including assault that does not result in physical harm, major disruption on campus and trespassing.
PROMISE, which stands for Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports and Education, aims to do this through both “short-term on-site intervention” and “longer-term regular school progress-monitoring.”
If a student completes the program “successfully,” the district considers that an adequate consequence in lieu of entry into the juvenile justice system.
The program was launched in 2013 “in response to concerns over the district’s numbers of student arrests,” according to WLRN, as part of an effort to eliminate the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”
District spokeswoman Tracy Clark said that while records did show that Cruz appeared at the facility where the PROMISE program is housed, they did not indicate he completed the recommended three-day program.
The attempted cover-up of Cruz’s involvement in the PROMISE program was only the first indication that the story around what Pollack has called the district’s “data-driven decision-making” was about to unravel.
A Deeper Problem
Together with Max Eden, an education policy expert and senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, Pollack discovered many missed opportunities for intervention that he believes built up to the shooting that killed his daughter.
From aggressive behavior as a toddler to verbal threats and suicide attempts in middle school, his behavior led many of Cruz’s former teachers and peers to express concerns, both formally and more casually.
Even though many of these behaviors were formally reported, school policy required extensive proof before he was finally transferred in 2014 to Cross Creek, a specialized school for students with behavioral disabilities.
But Cruz would start attending a traditional high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in 2016.
Despite the teen’s suicide attempts and troubling behavior, Cruz was never arrested or sent to a hospital to receive proper treatment. Had he been, Pollack argues, Cruz never would have been able to purchase a rifle.
“There were laws in place that would have prevented the shooting and they weren’t followed through. He wasn’t arrested. We don’t need new laws, let’s just put the ones in place and enforce the ones that are in place,” he told The Western Journal, explaining his belief that so-called “common-sense” gun laws still wouldn’t have prevented the shooting from happening.
Pollack was so moved by the information he found in Cruz’s past files that he and Eden compiled it all together in a book titled, “Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created The Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students.”
Pollack said he wrote the book to not only shed light on the district’s shortcomings, but also to warn other administrators and parents of the repercussions these kinds of policies can have.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of students like Nikolas Cruz across the country. But they do not do what he did because we reach them. We help them or we stop them,” Pollack and Eden wrote in their book, explaining that the emails and evaluation notes included in the book don’t excuse his actions, but instead explain “how he was enabled to do it.”
“Every institution around Cruz, especially the school system, failed,” they continued. “He did not have to become a mass murderer.”
Pollack and Eden aren’t the only ones who have raised concerns over programs similar to the Broward County school district’s PROMISE program following the shooting.
In March 2018, Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wrote a letter to then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking them to consider revising the 2014 directive that encouraged schools to emphasize “constructive interventions” over referring students to local law enforcement.
“The overarching goals of the 2014 directive to mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline, reduce suspensions and expulsions, and to prevent racially biased discipline are laudable and should be explored,” Rubio wrote.
“However, any policy seeking to achieve these goals requires basic common sense and an understanding that failure to report troubled students, like Cruz, to law enforcement can have dangerous repercussions. The 2014 directive lacked such common sense, but the guidance can be revised to strike an appropriate balance that marries school safety with student discipline and counseling.”
What Parents Need To Know
Pollack urged parents to learn the policies in place at their children’s schools. He said he hopes that is the biggest takeaway from his book.
“I wrote this book as a manual for parents to read it, to educate themselves and to know where they’re putting their children, because it’s their responsibility. It’s not your governor, it’s not your senator, it’s not the school board,” he told The Western Journal.
“You are ultimately responsible for where your child goes, and I didn’t do it and it got my daughter murdered.”
Pollack has continued to fight for justice for his daughter’s murder by holding those who adopted lax policies of discipline for children like Cruz accountable.
He has also started the School Safety Grant, which “discovers and implements technological solutions that work to accelerate response times in an active shooter situation.”
“While there is no single cure to these horrific acts of violence,” the grant’s mission statement says, “there are advanced measures of protection that can drastically increase security in our children’s schools. We strive to find, fund and champion the technology that does exactly that, seeking to reassure American students’ — and parents’ — peace of mind.”
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