The head of the state commission investigating the Parkland school shooting said Friday that he doubted Broward County’s controversial Promise program would turn out to have much to do with the massacre.
The school district’s diversion program, which allows students who commit misdemeanors such as theft or vandalism to avoid arrest, has attracted national attention, held up as evidence of a permissive, bumbling school district that failed to protect students from a teen who would become a killer.
But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School School Safety Commission, said no evidence has yet turned up that the program played much of a role in what happened, saying the gunman’s easy access to school grounds appeared far more relevant.
“I don’t think the Promise program has a hill of beans to do with the outcome of this,” he said, toward the end of an all-day meeting of the commission, held at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. “I think what has to do with the outcome of this is why he was able to get out of that car and wander through an unlocked door and get into that building totally unchallenged. You’ve got access that was free and unfettered.”
Gualtieri said he would keep an open mind and that commission would continue digging into the program, but that if the killer Nikolas Cruz turned out to have a single, brief involvement with the program, the focus on Promise was “a red herring” with no impact on what happened.
The commission, composed of public officials, law enforcement officers and parents of children killed in the shooting, has its own team of investigators and is required to produce a report by the end of the year.
The Promise program was one source of conflict Friday between the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the school district, as their representatives clashed over the role of law enforcement in the schools.
BSO Major Nichole Anderson told the commission that school deputies working with the Promise program lack access to disciplinary databases, forcing them to rely on personal relationships with administrators and student posts on social media to find out if kids get into trouble.
“So if you don’t have that relationship or that communication with the administration at the school, then things fall through the cracks,” she said.
Deputies, known as school resource officers, have to deal with a lack of coordination between databases, she said.
“They do not have access to our system,” she said. “We do not have access to their system.”
In addition to administrators, they watch student social media posts.
”They’re on Twitter and Snapchat about how many times they’ve gotten (arrested) for this or oh, yeah, I’m in the civil citation program,” she said. “Our SROs know they’re active in social media and try to check what the kids are talking about.”
Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the shooting, expressed surprise that so little was done to track student discipline across agency and jurisdictional lines.
“For fear of stating the obvious, if we have no database – for lack of a better term – we’re not tracking what’s happening, even across law enforcement agencies, and certainly there’s only good citizenship driving interactions between law enforcement and the school district,” he said. “You have no hope of actually identifying and interceding before something tragic happens. It would be nothing more than luck that would allow us to do that.”
Jeff Moquin, chief of staff, Broward School Board, addressed that issue briefly at the beginning of his testimony.
“I do want to make it clear that Broward County Public Schools have a student database, and a component of that student database does in fact include tracking discipline,” he said.
School district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said in an email that the district has a disciplinary database on students, with data fields that are made available to law enforcement officers. She said school staff work with school resource officers to make sure they get the information they need and that the Sheriff’s Office complaints were new to the district.
“Prior to today, BSO has not brought any concerns regarding access and information sharing to the district,” she said.
The sheriff’s office backed up its position Friday evening, releasing a school board document entitled “FAQ on disclosure of student information to law enforcement.”
The document specifically states that school resource officers may not be given access to file cabinets with student information or given passwords to student. Both of these would violate federal law protecting student privacy, states document, from the district’s general counsel and privacy officer.
The document also says that district employees may not “indirectly” provide information from these sources to law enforcement either.
Major Anderson also said that top BSO officers think the school district should create its own police department, taking responsibility for policing schools away from the sheriff’s office or local police. She said such a change would allow for improved coordination and consistency. But she said Sheriff Scott Israel has not signed off on that proposal.
Moquin said such a move would be expensive, saying salary and start-up costs would total $56.7 million.
“As a school system, our core business is teaching and learning,” he said. “We’re not in the law enforcement business.”