Promise program — slammed after Parkland shooting — should be scrapped, commission says
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, speaks during a news conference on school safety initiatives in Congress during a break of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. (Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Broward schools’ controversial Promise program should be shut down or merged with other programs that keep kids out of jail, a state commission recommended Wednesday.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which is investigating the mass shooting last year in Parkland, voted to ask the Legislature to change state law so that all programs allowing students to avoid being arrested would fall under the State Attorney’s Office.

“This would scrap school-based diversion programs,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of the commission.

The suggestion is sure to re-ignite a debate about those programs. Critics contend they give troublemakers an undeserved break for criminal behavior, while supporters insist the programs guard against jailing youngsters, particularly minorities, who commit only minor indiscretions.

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The commission’s recommendation is significant because the group is highly respected by the state Legislature, which included many of its previous recommendations in a school safety law passed last spring.

Under the commission’s plan, diversion programs run by law enforcement would continue. Commission members say those programs are better tracked and there’s more accountability.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie plans to appear before the commission Thursday to defend the Promise program. He said at a back-to-school news conference Wednesday that critics falsely claim the program protects students who commit violent crimes. Felonies are referred to law enforcement, he said.

“There is this continual erroneous assumption about the Promise program,” Runcie said.

The Promise program allows students who commit certain misdemeanors to complete a program at an alternative school in lieu of being arrested. It was created in 2013 as a way to reduce the number of black students arrested for petty crimes, such as throwing spit balls and mouthing off at a teacher.

Many critics said the idea of Promise is noble, but it’s poorly run and the district has failed to be transparent about who participates.

Commission members blasted the district’s decision in March to stop entering student offenses into a Department of Juvenile Justice database, as required by law for diversion programs, by saying Promise was an “alternative to external suspension” program, not a diversion program.

The commission is also asking the state Legislature to clearly define diversion programs, to prevent Broward from trying to skirt state law.

The recommendation also says that teachers should have some discretion in whether they think an offense is serious enough to require police.

Only two other counties in the state — Franklin in the Panhandle and Sarasota — operate programs similar to Promise, where kids who commit crimes can escape any contact with law enforcement, said Sherry Jackson, director of research for the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The commission’s recommendations go farther than a Juvenile Justice study, which recommended the program be reviewed and changed to fix flaws but didn’t say it should end.

Commission members say Promise conflicts with or duplicates Broward’s civil citation program, which allows juveniles to commit three misdemeanors before they are arrested. Promise offenses don’t count toward that total.

“It’s a pre-diversion of a diversion program. It doesn’t make any sense,” said commission member Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed at Stoneman Douglas.

Promise received national acclaim during the Obama administration and has large support in the black community, which had complained for years that black students were disproportionately suspended and arrested compared to white students who committed the same offenses.

Chris Smith, a former state senator, said the Promise program is helping to end a school-to-jail pipeline that predominantly affects black students.

“We were making misbehavior a misdemeanor and giving kids records that would follow them for the rest of their lives,” Smith said. “I would hate to go back to those days.”

Damara Holness, president of the Broward Democratic Black Caucus, said alternative programs like the Promise Program are needed to keep children from falling “into traps.”

“Design a system with accountability within the program, don’t just get rid of the program,” Holness said.

But the program has faced scrutiny since the Parkland mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. Critics say it’s part of a culture of leniency that allows Broward students to commit crimes without police knowing.

It’s led to heated debates on the School Board since Promise critic Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was murdered at Stoneman Douglas, joined the School Board in November. When she brought up the issue at a School Board meeting Tuesday, Rosalind Osgood, who represents a largely black constituency, snapped back in anger.

“In my community, we’re sick and tired of the Promise program coming up over and over again,” Osgood said at the meeting. “We’re beginning to wonder if it’s our intent to become an institution that are feeding kids to the criminal justice system.”

The Promise program has received mixed reaction from law enforcement. Former Sheriff Scott Israel and some city police chiefs supported it, but many others that complained it takes away too much discretion from school police.

Current Sheriff Gregory Tony, who has voiced concerns about the program, declined to comment on the commission’s recommendation Wednesday, saying he’d have to read it first.

A spokeswoman for the Broward State Attorney’s Office also said, “we will have to review the proposals before commenting.”

School district officials breathed a sigh of relief last year when the Promise program escaped major scrutiny by the Stoneman Douglas commission. The commission determined last summer that the program was too lenient, allowing kids to receive endless second chances, but it had no direct effect on the Parkland tragedy.

Still, the commission recommended the program be revamped to include more accountability. The district has made minor changes, such as limiting how many times students can participate, but has resisted a compete overhaul.

Staff writer Lois Solomon contributed to this report.