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Commission: Diversion Program Had No Role In School Massacre

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
The Florida Channel
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri heads up the school shooting safety commission.

A commission investigating a Florida high school massacre has concluded that the suspect's connection to a student diversion program played no role in the attack, and commission members pushed aside suggestions that the program prevented police from stopping suspect Nikolas Cruz before the shooting.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission agreed Tuesday that Cruz's 2013 participation in the Broward County school district's Promise Program played no part in the Feb. 14 mass shooting. Promise has been criticized for leniency, particularly by conservatives, and questions have been raised whether Cruz completed the program. The commission is holding a three-day meeting to discuss issues surrounding the Feb. 14 shooting at Stoneman Douglas that left 17 dead.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission's chairman, called criticism of the Promise Program "a red herring." Records show Cruz was referred to the program as an eighth grader after he broke a bathroom faucet. Under Promise, students who commit petty vandalism or theft, harassment, fight or other minor crimes or violations are referred to the off-campus program for two-to-10 days. They are assessed, given a course of treatment, attend classes and receive counseling. Some have said that if Cruz had been charged criminally, he wouldn't have been able to buy the semi-automatic rifle used in the massacre, but Gualtieri said that is wrong. Gualtieri said even if the program didn't exist, Cruz would have been charged at most with a misdemeanor.

"The Promise Program is irrelevant to Nikolas Cruz," he said. "It never in any way, shape, form would have affected his ability to buy that AR-15 and to buy the shotguns, to buy anything else, to possess."

Records are inconclusive on whether Cruz attended Promise or skipped the assignment. School officials originally said he was never referred to the program, but later said they found records showing he was. Records show almost 90 percent of Promise participants never reoffend, Gualtieri said.

Commission members did make several recommendations for improving Promise, including combining school and criminal records so officials can get a full picture of a juvenile's behavior. Cruz had no criminal record before the shooting, but his mother called deputies to their home about 20 times for behavior issues including threats and possible battery. The commission will later discuss how those incidents were handled.

The members are scheduled Wednesday to discuss Broward County's 911 and emergency dispatch systems.

Commission members also learned Tuesday that mental health counselors told Cruz's mother that she shouldn't let him buy guns, but she ignored their concerns and he began assembling an arsenal before her death last year. Lynda Cruz was "an enabler" who interfered with efforts to get her son treatment, Gualtieri said.

About a year before the attack, Cruz was 18 and living with his mother when he legally bought the AR-15. He bought other guns before and after her November death from pneumonia.

"If he wants to have a gun, he could have a gun," Gualtieri said Lynda Cruz told his counselors. His father died when he was young. Similar complaints were made about the mother of Adam Lanza, who killed 26 at a Connecticut elementary school in 2012 after killing her. Nancy Lanza bought guns for her 20-year-old son despite his severe emotional issues.

Zachary Cruz, the Florida suspect's younger brother, told The Miami Herald in May that Nikolas Cruz had pointed a rifle at him and their mother in separate events, but they didn't call police either time.

School and government records obtained by The Associated Press and other media shortly after the shooting show Nikolas Cruz was diagnosed as developmentally delayed at age 3 and had disciplinary issues dating to middle school. In February 2014, while in eighth grade, Cruz was transferred to a school for children with emotional and behavioral issues. He stayed until 10th grade, when he was transferred to Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

About a year before the attack, Cruz was kicked out of the school after he harassed other students, had outbursts, fought and had numerous other issues.

The commission brings together law enforcement, education and mental health officials along with legislators and the parents of student victims. It will prepare a report by Jan. 1.

Cruz is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder. His attorneys have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without parole. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.