The media focused like a laser on the issue of gun control after the Parkland shooting, while preening over a sheriff who would later earn a vote of no confidence from his own officers. But more than two months later, few want to delve into the role that Obama administration-supported lax discipline policies played in allowing the shooter to slip through the cracks.
Thanks to a pair of letters to the Department of Education and Department of Justice from the office of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, that may be changing. Evidence is mounting that the discipline and arrest policies of Broward County schools, in agreement with Sheriff Scott Israel’s department, played a critical role in the Parkland tragedy.
The policies allowed the shooter’s many potentially criminal incidents prior to the shooting to go unrecorded. They also created the kind of unsafe atmosphere in which his shocking behavior would go largely unheeded, because so many violent incidents vied for official attention. It started, as so many hellish policies do, with good intentions.
Broward County officials wanted to disrupt the “school to prison pipeline,” and to close racial gaps in suspensions, expulsions, and referrals for arrest among their students. As their arrest numbers plummeted (which tends to happen when you intentionally stop arresting people), the county garnered national praise for their efforts, including from the Obama administration. Superintendent Robert Runcie bragged that a 2014 Dear Colleague letter from the Department of Education was taking Broward discipline policies and copying them around the country through federal investigations.
Meanwhile, things in Broward County got more and more dangerous, as officials were encouraged to ignore or not discipline students for violent criminal acts. From the RealClear Investigations report:
Records show such policies have failed to curtail other campus violence and its effects now on the rise in district schools — including fighting, weapons use, bullying and related suicides.
Meanwhile, murders, armed robberies and other violent felonies committed by children outside of schools have hit record levels, and some see a connection with what’s happening on school grounds. Since the relaxing of discipline, Broward youths have not only brazenly punched out their teachers, but terrorized Broward neighborhoods with drive-by shootings, gang rapes, home invasions and carjackings.
Broward County now has the highest percentage of “the most serious, violent [and] chronic” juvenile offenders in Florida, according to the county’s chief juvenile probation officer.
By 2016, after just a few years under the new discipline policies being praised and copied around the country, Broward County schools had the highest ratio of cases involving weapons in Florida.
In this environment, which coupled strong incentives to look the other way with rising serious juvenile crime, the Parkland shooter’s many violent incidents – including bringing bullets to school, physical altercations, and issuing criminal threats to fellow students – never resulted in a criminal record.
Rubio’s two letters demand investigation into these troubling facts and other questions surrounding the lax discipline policies in Broward County. The letters ask the departments to look into mismanaged safety funds (an allegation brought to light by a determined young student reporter, Kenneth Preston, whose diligent reporting was called “fake news” by the superintendent when the school board cut his time to three minutes and disallowed his witnesses).
They also point to the troubling facts in the RealClear report, including that School Resource Officers were directed by the local police department not to arrest students, even for certain felonies.
The Department of Education and Justice Department have a duty to look, not only into the allegations themselves, but also into the role that each of their departments has played in boosting these perilous feel-good discipline policies.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has yet to rescind the 2014 guidance letter and school districts are still under investigation – often in secrecy – across the country. The Department of Education gave Broward County over $50 million in grants to support its experiments in discipline. The only people not informed or consulted, of course, were parents.
Many parents across the country have only found out that their districts were participating in so-called “restorative justice” policies when their children found themselves on the wrong end of them; when their children were criminally assaulted, sexually harassed, or threatened. For many families, the cost of private tuition or homeschooling can be difficult to manage, and many feel stuck sending their children to a public school system that doesn’t reflect their values and can’t even be counted upon to keep their children safe.
While Rubio’s letters may hopefully jog federal investigation, the real solution is to empower parents through school choice programs. Only realigning incentives in the system and prioritizing family decisions over bureaucrats’ will produce the real change that families with children stuck in what now can fairly be characterized as dangerous schools, so desperately need.