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The Scandal Behind The Florida School Shooting Is About Federal Coercion, Not Guns


A thousand different things might have prevented the Parkland shooter from killing 17 people at a Florida high school last month. But among the most likely measures would have been the intervention of local law enforcement after any one of dozens of complaints about him from neighbors, family friends, and classmates.

Why didn’t it happen? The shocking truth is that local officials failed to intervene not because of an oversight or a mistake, but because of a deliberate policy put in place to secure federal funding.

Last week, Paul Sperry of RealClearInvestigations reported that Broward County School District, the country’s sixth largest, “was in the vanguard of a strategy, adopted by more than 50 other major school districts nationwide, allowing thousands of troubled, often violent, students to commit crimes without legal consequence.”

The goal of the policy was to reduce the “school-to-prison pipeline” by making it more difficult for school officials to suspend or expel problem students, and to make it harder for local police to arrest them for certain crimes—some of which the 19-year-old shooter allegedly committed before his February 14 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. According to Sperry, the strategy came straight out of Washington:

The new policy resulted from an Obama administration effort begun in 2011 to keep students in school and improve racial outcomes (timeline here), and came against a backdrop of other efforts to rein in perceived excesses in ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policies, including in Florida.

Broward school Superintendent Robert W. Runcie—a Chicagoan and Harvard graduate with close ties to President Obama and his Education Department—signed an agreement with the county sheriff and other local jurisdictions to trade cops for counseling. Students charged with various misdemeanors, including assault, would now be disciplined through participation in ‘healing circles,’ obstacle courses and other ‘self-esteem building’ exercises.

Why would Broward County and other major school districts adopt such a policy? Because the federal government was paying them for it. “Applications for federal grants reveal that Runcie’s plan factored into approval of tens of millions of dollars in federal funding from [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan’s department,” writes Sperry.

The Failure to Intervene Wasn’t a Mistake

In the weeks following the shooting, Broward County Sherriff Scott Israel was roundly criticized, not just for failing to respond to advance warnings about the shooter but also for using his elected office to run a corrupt patronage program. He was also criticized for the cowardly conduct of four of his deputies, including the school guard, who hid behind their cars outside the school during the crucial minutes of the massacre when they might have stopped it. Israel responded to all this shamefully, blaming the National Rifle Association, the school guard—everyone but himself.

Given the failures of Israel’s office, it appeared as though the system itself had failed, just as it failed in the Sutherland Springs church shooting in Texas last year. In that case, the 26-year-old killer should have been barred from purchasing the semiautomatic rifle he used to kill 26 people and injure 20 more because of a domestic violence conviction while serving in the Air Force. The conviction should have been reported to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, which would have flagged his prohibited purchase.

Likewise, if warnings about the Parkland shooter had been taken seriously, he probably would not have been able to buy the semiautomatic rifle he used in the February 14 shooting.

But now we know that the two cases are very different. Sutherland Springs was a breakdown in a system that otherwise would have worked. But in Broward County, officials failed to intervene not because of a mistake or an oversight, but because of a deliberate federal policy put into place and actively promoted by local officials. Law enforcement failed to respond to dozens of complaints and warnings about the young man because not responding to such complaints was the official policy.

Federal Coercion Corrupts Public Institutions

In policy wonk circles, Broward County’s deal with Obama’s Education Department is called “cooperative federalism.” The idea is that state and local governments “cooperate” with federal executive branch agencies in exchange for generous funding—funding they would otherwise have to raise by taxing local residents.

This is how massive programs like Medicaid operate. For every dollar that states spend, the feds match a percentage of that dollar on the condition that the state’s Medicaid program adheres to a long list of federal rules and regulations. In practice, it’s not cooperation but coercion. For large states like Texas and Florida, the federal government dumps tens of billions of dollars into their Medicaid programs every year. Because of how large Medicaid is relative to most states’ budgets, there’s no way they could reject the federal funding—and the rules that come with it—without a breakdown of state services. The result is that federal bureaucrats dictate how states run their Medicaid programs.

Such a scheme helps, of course, if local officials agree with federal policy. By all accounts, Runcie, the Broward County school superintendent, was a willing partner with the Obama administration. He turned his school district into a poster child for the Obama administration’s “cops for counseling” policy while also securing substantial federal grants. All he had to do was make sure Israel and other local law enforcement authorities looked the other way when complaints came in about kids like the shooter. The school district’s arrest and expulsion numbers went down, and Runcie was able to claim success.

Intermingling finances is how the federal government coerces state and local governments into doing things they don’t want to do. After all, state and local officials aren’t always as compliant as Runcie. Sperry notes that Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, issued new discipline guidelines in January 2014, “strongly recommending that the nation’s schools use law enforcement measures and out-of-school suspensions as a last resort.” Duncan was joined by Attorney General Eric Holder in the announcement. The new guidelines were more than mere suggestions, “they also came with threats of federal investigations and defunding for districts that refused to fully comply.”

This isn’t something to shrug off. When public policy is formulated by federal bureaucrats in Washington DC and imposed on local communities through offers of federal funding, it removes political accountability. Local officials who are carrying out the will of distant federal bureaucrats can hardly be blamed for the outcomes of policies they didn’t devise.

This loss of accountability is a form of corruption. Not the straightforward quid-pro-quo kind of corruption, but the kind that erodes and undermines public institutions over time. If all a mayor, school superintendent, or county sheriff has to do to keep raking in federal grants is tick off a list of boxes, then ticking off those boxes becomes how you define success. That’s precisely what happened in Broward County, with tragic consequences.