The February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida prompted waves of analysis and scrutiny of the political and social background to the massacre, as well as the personal history and circumstances of the suspected shooter, 19-year-old former pupil Nikolas Cruz.
Some of the attempts to find patterns where none existed veered from the merely spurious into the ridiculous. In May 2018, the disreputable right-wing web site MadWorldNews.com went so far as to attempt to tie former President Barack Obama to Cruz:
Nearly three months have now passed since the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen lives were lost on that fateful day when crazed gunman Nikolas Cruz stormed the halls of his former high school and opened fire on the unsuspecting staff and students inside. Now, we have learned that Cruz has a very “controversial” connection to former President Barack Obama, and the media definitely doesn’t want you to know about it.
In reality, there is no connection between Cruz and Obama and the links that MadWorldNews.com and others have attempted to draw are based on extremely spurious premises and factual inaccuracies.
The “connection” claimed in the article has to do with a Broward County, Florida program called PROMISE (Preventing Recidivism Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support and Education.) PROMISE was started in 2013 by the Broward County School District and Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale; it is an intervention program for student behavior that would otherwise prompt a suspension, expulsion or arrest.
Roughly speaking, the idea behind PROMISE was that — instead of being arrested and ending up in the correctional system, or removed from school entirely — teenagers involved in nonviolent misdemeanors such as fighting, vandalism, bullying, theft and drug or alcohol use would be required to complete a program consisting of counseling, instruction in conflict resolution, preventive instruction related to drugs, alcohol and gang activity, and so on, thereby (in theory) circumventing the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Going into the PROMISE program is an alternative to suspension or arrest and failure to complete the program means a student is suspended or arrested instead. The terms of the program explicitly allow for students to be reported directly to law enforcement agencies in the event of violent or threatening behavior, and PROMISE came about through an agreement between the school district and various legal, law enforcement, and civil rights entities.
It did take place during the Obama administration, but despite the decision by MadWorldNews.com and others to focus their outrage on the 44th president, the list of parties to the agreement that established PROMISE did not include any federal departments or agencies or President Barack Obama himself. Since the launch of the PROMISE program in 2013, Broward County public schools have seen a progressive annual decline in the rate of disciplinary incidents, according to school district data.
In May 2018, Broward County School District stated that Nikolas Cruz was sent into the PROMISE program on a three-day referral in 2013, after he vandalized a bathroom in Westglades Middle School. A spokesperson for Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told local radio station WLRN that Cruz had attended an intake meeting, but that he did not actually undergo any PROMISE-related instruction or programming for reasons that are not yet clear. The school district had previously repeatedly played down claims that Cruz had been referred to the PROMISE program. In an interview in April 2018, Runcie affirmed that Cruz had “no connection to the PROMISE program.” This appears not to be true. Cruz did at least have a brush with it in 2013.
In attempting to link Cruz’s shooting massacre to the former president, MadWorldNews.com referred to “Obama’s PROMISE program,” and the conservative Daily Wire described PROMISE as an “Obama-era” program implemented in Broward County “at the behest of the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce the number of minority students who ended up in prison from crimes that they committed on campus.”
In March 2018, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham blamed “Obama bureaucrats” for financially incentivizing the PROMISE program by “awarding the [Broward County School] District nearly $54 million in grants to improve the lives of ‘students in poverty’ and students of color”:
The standard to show that their lives are actually improving? Fewer arrests at schools, less police involvement, fewer disciplinary problems, at least on paper.
These descriptions are flawed. The $54 million grant Ingraham referred to was not related to the PROMISE program. It was a Department of Education grant awarded to Broward County Schools District in 2016 under the Teacher Incentive Fund and was given in response to the district’s use of “performance-based compensation and other strategies to increase students’ access to effective educators in high-needs schools.”
It had nothing to do with student discipline, and the Department of Education, in its evaluation of Broward’s application for the funding, never once mentioned the PROMISE program. So Ingraham’s claim that the Obama administration “incentivized” Broward to push on with the PROMISE program is based on a glaring factual inaccuracy. However, in 2014 — a year after PROMISE was launched — the Departments of Education and Justice did jointly issue guidelines which broadly favored the kind of alternative approach to school discipline implemented in PROMISE.
Speaking at the launch of the guidelines in January 2014, then Attorney General Eric Holder said:
During critical years that are proven to impact a student’s later chances for success, alarming numbers of young people are suspended, they are expelled, or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights, or showing what’s called disrespect, by laughing in class. We’re not here to say that that [behavior] is acceptable, but to expel a kid, to suspend a student, to put a student like that in the criminal justice system — that’s simply unacceptable.
Rates of suspension and expulsion among black and ethnic minority students are disproportionately high, as Department of Education analysis has shown time and again. This racial disparity was another motivating factor behind the Obama administration’s approach to school discipline.
Even the link between the PROMISE program and Nikolas Cruz is somewhat tenuous. We know that he attended one intake interview as part of a three-day referral in 2013, but he did not actually undergo PROMISE-related instruction, for reasons that are so far unclear.
Secondly, the terms of the PROMISE program do nothing to prevent a student from being reported directly to law enforcement in the event of violent or threatening behavior, and we know that the PROMISE program did not stop authorities from transferring Cruz out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2017 — the closest school administrators could legally come to expelling him.