Stu­dent diver­sion pro­grams suc­cess­ful

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By TERRY SPENCER

SUN­RISE, Fla. - 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 ten 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 “mind­bog­gling” 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 four 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 lowlevel 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 self­in­crim­i­na­tion. 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.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BROWARD COUNTY PUB­LIC SCHOOLS

Broward County schools su­per­in­ten­dent, Robert W. Run­cie.

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