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Incompetence Wasn’t the Problem in Broward County
© Jack Cashill
No one who follows the blogging collective known as the “Conservative Treehouse” will dispute my claim that its most prominent blogger, “Sundance” by name, is America’s best reporter. I got to know Sundance doing research for my book on the Trayvon Martin Shooting, If I Had a Son. So instrumental was the research of Sundance and his colleagues that I made the “Treepers” the protagonists of the book.
Sundance’s research into the political dynamics of Martin’s Miami-Dade school system led him to expand his research into neighboring Broward County years before the Parkland shooting. We communicated the day after that shooting. We had a shared sense of what had gone wrong. I detailed some of this last week in an article on what one public interest magazine called the “Broward County solution.” In Broward County, they call it more modestly the “PROMISE Program.”
In November 2013, Sundance first reported that Broward County was “willing to jump on the diversionary bandwagon.” As an attached Associate Press article noted, “One of the nation’s largest school districts has reached an agreement with law enforcement agencies and the NAACP to reduce the number of students being charged with crimes for minor offenses.” The goal, as the article explained, was to create an alternative to the zero-tolerance policies then in place by giving principals, not law enforcement, the authority to determine the nature of the offense.
In a collaborative agreement among school officials and law enforcement the presence of the NAACP might seem anomalous, but not in the Obama era where considerations of race routinely shaped educational policy. “One of the first things I saw was a huge differential in minority students, black male students in particular, in terms of suspensions and arrests,” Broward’s recently hired school superintendent Robert Runcie told the American Prospect. An African American, Runcie assumed the differential was due largely to some unspoken institutional bias against minorities. As he saw it, these suspensions played a major role in the so-called “achievement gap” between white and minority students.
The first two “whereas” clauses in the collaborative agreement deal with opportunities for students in general, but the third speaks to the motivating issue behind the agreement: “Whereas, across the country, students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students are disproportionately impacted by school-based arrests for the same behavior as their peers.”
The spurious “same behavior” insinuation would put the onus on law enforcement to treat black students more gingerly than they would non-blacks. To make the issue seem less stark, authorities cloaked the African American crime disparity with EEOC boilerplate about “students of color” and other presumably marginalized individuals. Although nonsensical on the face of it—one is hard pressed to recall a crime spree by the disabled—this language opened the door for Nikolas de Jesus Cruz. An adopted son of the late Roger and Linda Cruz, the future school shooter had a name that fit the “metrics” of the collaborative agreement regardless of his DNA.
It is not hard to understand why Broward County officials would be eager to adopt this program. Miami-Dade had been receiving all kinds of honors for its efforts to shut down the dread “school-to-prison” pipeline. On February 15, 2012, Miami-Dade County Public Schools put out a press release citing a commendation the Miami-Dade Schools Police (M-DSPD) had recently received. The Department of Juvenile Justice had singled out Miami-Dade for “dramatically decreasing” school-related “delinquency.” Said M-DSPD Chief Charles Hurley, “Our mantra is education not incarceration.”
17-year-old Miami-Dade student Trayvon Martin got neither incarceration nor education. Eleven days after this self-congratulatory press release, Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, 250 miles from his Miami home. For all the attention paid to the case, the media have refused to report why Martin was left to wander the streets of Sanford high and alone on a Sunday night during a school week.
Sundance, who lives in South Florida, broke this story through old-fashioned, gumshoe reporting. He writes, “Over time the policy [in Miami-Dade] began to create outcomes where illegal behavior by students was essentially unchecked by law enforcement.” Sundance was alerted to the problem during the investigation into Martin’s death when six M-DSPD officers blew the whistle on their superiors, most notably Chief Hurley. The whistleblowers told of cases of burglary and robbery where officers had to hide the recovered evidence in order to avoid writing up the students for criminal behavior. “At first I didn't believe them,” writes Sundance of the whistleblowers. “However, after getting information from detectives, cross referencing police reports, and looking at the ‘found merchandise’ I realized they were telling the truth.”
One of those incidents involved Martin. Caught with a dozen pieces of stolen female jewelry and a burglary tool, Martin had his offense written off as entering an unauthorized area and writing graffiti on a locker. There could be no effort made to track the jewelry to its rightful owner lest Martin’s apprehension be elevated to the level of a crime. Instead, Martin was suspended, one of three suspensions that school year.
When George Zimmerman saw him that night in the rain, Martin, now on his third suspension, was looking in windows of the complex’s apartments. Zimmerman thought he was casing them. Given his history, Martin probably was. Zimmerman dialed the police. The rest is history—or, more accurately, would have been history if the media had reported Martin’s brutal assault on Zimmerman honestly, but they almost universally refused to do so.
Broward County launched its “education not incarceration” experiment four months after Zimmerman was rightfully found not guilty in the Martin case. By this time, Sundance and his fellow Treepers had exposed the corruption that Miami-Dade’s seemingly enlightened policy had wrought within its school police department. Given the mainstream media’s failure to follow up on Sundance’s work, even in Florida, it is likely that Broward officials did not know how deeply the policy had compromised police work in Miami-Dade.
What Broward County authorities did know is that the best “school resource officers,” the euphemism for in-school sheriff’s deputies, were those most sensitive to the objectives of the PROMISE program. It is hardly shocking that in 2014 the now notorious Scot Peterson was named School Resource Officer of the Year by the Broward County Crime Commission for handling issues “with tact and judgment.” The motto of that crime commission? “Evil triumphs when good people stand idly by.” Yikes!
Peterson, the commission noted, was also “active in mentoring and counseling students.” It appears Nikolas Cruz got counseled a lot. Better to educate him, after all, than incarcerate him. Although there are many details still to be known, the Miami Herald reported on Friday that, in November 2017, a tipster called the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) to say Cruz “‘could be a school shooter in the making,’ but deputies did not write up a report on that warning.”
The Herald added that this tip came just weeks after a relative called urging BSO to seize his weapons. Two years prior, “A deputy investigated a report that Cruz ‘planned to shoot up the school’ — intelligence that was forwarded to the school’s resource officer, with no apparent result.”
That school resource officer just happened to be Scott Peterson. He did not err by letting this misunderstood Hispanic lad go unpunished in any meaningful way. Peterson showed his award-winning “tact and judgment.” He had to understand that to keep the PROMISE momentum going the school would have to see fewer and fewer arrests each year. This meant excusing worse and worse offenses, especially for students who counted as minorities. As for the qualities real cops are expected to show—courage under fire comes to mind—those were obviously not Peterson’s strong suit.
“The school resource officer was behind a stairwell wall just standing there, and he had his gun drawn. And he was just pointing it at the building,” said student Brandon Huff of Peterson. “And you could -- shots started going off inside. You could hear them going off over and over.”
In a surprisingly tough interview with Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, CNN’s Jake Tapper cited the 23 incidents before the shooting that involved Cruz and questioned whether the PROMISE program might have been responsible for the inaction by the sheriff’s office.
“It's helping many, many people,” said Israel in defense of the program. “What this program does is not put a person at 14, 15, 16 years old into the criminal justice system.”
Said Tapper, “What if he should be in the criminal justice system? What if he does something violent to a student? What if he takes bullets to school? What if he takes knives to schools? What if he threatens the lives of fellow students?” As solid as these questions are, if CNN had raised comparable questions after the death of Trayvon Martin, 17 Parkland students might still be alive.
Says Sundance in conclusion, “I will give testimony, provide names, outline dates, and give all prior records to any lawyer for use in a wrongful death lawsuit – so long as their intent would be to financially ruin the entire system and personally bankrupt the participants.”
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