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Florida Officials Told Student Diversion Programs Often Work

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The school district where the Florida high school massacre happened defended its controversial student diversion program Thursday, telling a commission investigating the shooting that the program has reduced on-campus crime and kept children in school — a claim many members remained skeptical of.

Broward County schools administrator Michaelle Pope told the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that the number of offenses covered by the Promise program have fallen by two-thirds from about 6,000 a year to about 2,000 a year since 2013.

There are 10 misdemeanors eligible for the Promise program, including fighting, threatening assault, petty vandalism and theft, drug and alcohol use, creating a major disruption and making a false accusation against a staff member.

Under the Promise program, which covers kindergarten through high school, students are sent to an alternative program for up to 10 days and they and their families receive counseling. Police officers are notified after the third offense in a school year, although they can arrest a student on a first offense if they choose. The program was devised by the school district, police, prosecutors, public defenders, a judge and community groups including the NAACP to reduce the number of students being arrested for minor on-campus crime and all remain supportive of the program, Pope said.

"There is accountability by all of the signatories," Pope told the commission.

Critics have said the program has made campus police officers reluctant to arrest students like Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student accused of killing 17 students and staff on Feb. 14. After Pope's presentation, several commissioners said they still have major concerns about the program and want more details in the coming months.

Commissioner Max Schachter, whose son Max died in the shooting, said it is "mind-boggling" that the offense number is reset to zero each school year.

"The whole purpose is the threat that if they don't go into this program they are going to be arrested, but if they are not arrested, what does that accomplish? And if they do go into the Promise program, does it really change their behavior?" Schachter said.

Previous critics have said Cruz should have been arrested at some point as he had more than 20 juvenile contacts with law enforcement officers at home and school, including allegations that he made threats to kill his former girlfriend's friends.

He was referred to Promise in 2013, but did not formally enter it, following a middle school vandalism incident. Pope said that while she could not address Cruz's case specifically, improvements have been made to make sure students complete the program or face criminal consequences.

Cruz's history will be discussed at the commission's August meeting. The 15-member panel has until Jan. 1 to issue a report to Florida Gov. Rick Scott detailing findings on what led to the shooting and its recommendations for preventing school shootings.

Earlier, Mark Greenwald, the director of research for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, told the commission that diversion programs for low-level offenders are widely successful. For example, only 4 percent of juveniles statewide who are referred to community programs through a widely used civil citation program reoffend within a year.

Under that program, juveniles who commit minor offenses such as underage drinking, petty shoplifting and minor vandalism are required to perform community service, often within days of the offense, rather than have a criminal case that will drag for months through the court system and leave them with a record that could hurt their ability to attend college, get a job or join the military. He also said locking up such low-level offenders also has a tendency to lead them into more serious crimes as they are exposed to violent and felonious teens.

Greenwald pointed out that almost all law-abiding, responsible adults did something as a teenager that could have gotten them arrested if they had been caught or if a police officer had not decided to cut them a break. For him, an officer let him go for drinking beer under the school bleachers.

"For most youth, we start with a light touch," Greenwald said, adding that usually works. "We know that two-thirds of the kids are arrested in Florida are arrested once and don't come back."

For those who do repeat, he said, they get put into the juvenile justice system and often wind up on probation or in detention.

Meanwhile, Cruz's attorneys have asked a judge to block the release of parts of what police call his confession. The motion filed Wednesday contends that parts of the statement "will cause significant trauma to an already beleaguered community" and its release would violate Cruz's constitutional rights to a fair trial and against self-incrimination. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.

Cruz's attorneys have said he would plead guilty in return to a sentence of life without parole. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The commission meets again Friday to discuss the hiring and use of on-campus police officers.


Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.