An article by Paul Sperry for RealClearInvestigations sheds some light on the situations in Broward County, Florida, the county where Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland sits.
In an effort to stop what school and community leaders call the “school to prison pipeline,” the Broward school system adopted a new discipline policy in 2013. An agreement was made between school officials and local police and sheriff departments that students would stop being arrested for misdemeanor crimes the district regarded as “non-violent.” Instead, student offenders would be handled by school officials through programs such as PROMISE and the Behavior Intervention Program. These programs, inspired by the “restorative justice” movement in school discipline, offered counseling to student offenders in the effort to turn their lives around and help them make better choices. The PROMISE program is short-term and the Behavior Intervention Program long-term. But, the goal was to try a different tact for non-violent student offenders in the effort to keep them out of jail, where they too often become hardened.
The problem is, some of what have been identified as “non-violent” misdemeanors by the school district are actually violent offenses, including assault, drugs, and public fighting. Students who have beaten their fellow students, or even teachers, to the point where medical care is required are not arrested or incarcerated, but sent to counseling programs. These programs, critics contend, have been unsuccessful in turning around the behavior of these offenders. The offenders are released back into the student population, where they repeat their offenses. There has been a significant increase in the number of attacks on students and teachers, and these attacks are becoming more violent. Critics claim this increase is because offenders are not removed from the student population and feel that they can commit their crimes with impunity. According to Sperry’s article, “Broward County now has the highest percentage of ‘the most serious, violent [and] chronic’ juvenile offenders in Florida.”
One of those repeat offenders was Nikolas Cruz, the student who shot up Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing seventeen people. Cruz was the recipient of years of intensive counseling, yet he remained violent and a known threat to his community, continuing his obsession with guns and violence and even making public threats, including statements about wanting to become a school shooter. He once carried bullets to school in his backpack. School officials barred him from carrying a backpack, but did not report the incident to law enforcement, though it represents a Class B weapons violation. Cruz continued to be involved in several fights and assaults. Still, he was not arrested or removed from the school population.
The new, ineffective disciplinary program has impacted the larger community, as well. Violent offenses, including murders, armed robberies, drive-by shootings, gang rapes, home invasions and carjackings are on the increase in Broward County, some reaching record levels, and many involving Broward school district students.
Law enforcement and parents have begun to complain that the schools have become ever more violent and their children at greater risk of harm. Some have decided to move to different schools, or take their kids out of the public school system entirely. But school officials are doubling down on their support for the program. School officials insist that school disciplinary events are down, as are arrests. Of course, it’s no surprise that disciplinary events and arrests are down if you simply choose to stop disciplining and arresting offending students. School officials have mostly refused to listen to the concerns of parents and community members.
The article by Sperry reinforces my take on the matter of school violence and school shootings. While politicians and activists focus on the federal government passing laws as the most effective way to stop school shootings, in truth the answer is at the local level. When schools create an environment where violence is tolerated, there will be more violence. When the violent, threatening behavior of students like Nikolas Cruz is dismissed or ignored, than they are empowered to carry out their threats, at great cost to others. When school officials refuse to work with local law enforcement because they regard them as part of the problem, rather than working with law enforcement to create meaningful and successful options, than those who wish to do others harm feel free to do so without fear of being punished.
Laws passed in Washington may make politicians and activists feel righteous and powerful, but they are mostly meaningless without the support of local, feet-on-the-ground people who are invested in keeping their schools and neighborhoods safe because it is their children who are at risk if they fail.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.