KEVIN LEININGER: Did Florida shooting show how protecting students from their actions can endanger others?
Any threat to “shoot up” a school is serious, but the real significance of what happened at New Haven High School last week may not have been the words themselves but the prompt arrest of the 16-year-old female student who spoke them.
In the wake of the attack that killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day, much attention has been focused on law enforcement officials’ failure to respond to prior warnings about the danger posed by alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz — and properly so. Far less attention has been paid to how an obviously troubled young man was able to buy a gun, and whether a school discipline policy designed to reduce the number of suspensions, expulsions and arrests may have played a role.
In 2013, the Broward County schools launched a program called “Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support and Education,” or PROMISE, which offered “the least punitive means of discipline” in response to certain “minor” infractions, such as petty theft or vandalism causing less than $1,000 in damages. Interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper after the shooting, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel insisted the program is “helping many, many people. What this program does is not put a person at 14, 15, 16 years old into the criminal justice system.”
To which Tapper replied: “What if he should be in the criminal justice system?”
A good question. No one can be certain whether Cruz deserved to be arrested before he slaughtered 17 people, but part of that ignorance may be due to the PROMISE program and the resulting reluctance of school officials to expose children to the legal system. As Israel told Tapper, “There’s no malfeasance if you don’t know about something.”
Despite many warnings to local and federal officials about Cruz’s potential for violence, he was never arrested — and was ultimately able to buy a firearm.
Even though school shooters tend to be white, it’s also necessary to ask whether Cruz’s race might have influenced school officials’ response to his previous provocations. In 2014, just a year after the PROMISE program began, the Obama Administration issued guidelines calling on educators to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” it said unfairly targeted minority students. “Research suggests that substantial racial disparities (in discipline) are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color,” the administration contended.
In other words, if a disproportionate number of minority students were punished, that could trigger a federal civil-rights investigation. In 2016, to the contrary, Broward County was the only large urban district in the country to receive a Teacher Incentive Fund grant, one of the goals of which is “improved life for students in poverty/students of color.”
In a paper released in January, prior to the Florida shootings, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Gail Heriot correctly asked whether the threat of a federal review would be more likely to eliminate actual discrimination “or — more likely — would schools react heavy-handedly by tolerating more classroom disorder?”
To be clear: Cruz alone is responsible for his actions, and mistakes that seem avoidable in hindsight were not so obvious before he started pulling the trigger. But it hardly requires clairvoyance to know that failure to confront small problems can lead to and even guarantee larger problems later. In a 1982 piece in the Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling gave this common-sense approach a name: the “broken window” theory.
Fort Wayne is often accused of being behind the times, but in this case we were ahead of the progressive curve. In 2012 the Fort Wayne Community Schools implemented something called the “Culturally Responsive Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports” plan officials said reflected the desire to teach students how to behave in a socially acceptable way before punishing them for acts they may not understand are wrong.
“Once we know they know, we will hold them accountable,” a spokeswomen said at the time.
I don’t know the race or culture of that New Haven student, but why should it matter? How many broken windows is too many? She made a serious threat, and officials responded in a serious and appropriate way — one that will affect this student in the future and, just maybe, influence others who might be tempted to do something equally rash, stupid or dangerous.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.