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Educators, Activists Push Back Against Criticism of Broward's PROMISE Program

Sam Turken
Broward school officials, law enforcement, educators and residents discussed criticism of the PROMISE program at a meeting on Thursday.

Broward County educators, lawyers and residents are pushing back against criticism of Broward public schools’ PROMISE program, saying it’s vital to keeping youth out of the criminal justice system for minor offenses.

The discipline program, which allows students to avoid arrests after committing misdemeanors, has experienced intense criticism because the Parkland school shooter was once referred to it. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which is investigating the mass shooting, is recommending that state lawmakers shut PROMISE down or merge it with other similar programs.

At a meeting on the program Thursday among Broward school officials, law enforcement, educators and residents, Henry Brown, the principal of Pine Ridge Education Center, said ending PROMISE would be a mistake.

These kids “need someone to listen to them not arrest them for every little thing that they do,” he said. “I was an at-risk kid. What if I was put in a system for fighting because I did it every day. You understand? I would not have had this opportunity.”

PROMISE started in 2013 after reports showed that Broward led the state in the number of black students arrested for minor offenses. The program received praise from the Obama administration and has large support from the black community according to advocates, who say it ends a school-to-jailine pipeline that primarily impacts black students.

But PROMISE has faced continuing criticism since the public learned the Parkland shooter was referred to it for a vandalism offense in 2013 and never completed it. The Broward school district was unable to explain why he failed to return or wasn’t subsequently referred to the criminal justice system.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas commission has said the shooter’s experience in the program had little to nothing to do with the shooting last year. Yet some commission members and residents have criticized the program’s inability to follow the shooter. The critics say the program creates a culture of leniency that allows students to commit crimes without law enforcement knowing.

“When you look at the matrix and when law enforcement is to actually be consulted, it’s not early enough in the process for us,” Coral Springs Deputy Chief of Police Shawn Backer said after Thursday's meeting. “We want to be consulted as soon as a crime occurs on one of our campuses.”

The Stoneman Douglas is recommending an end to all formal diversion programs in the state. PROMISE would be merged with an existing county civil citation program that allows children to commit up to three misdemeanors before they get a criminal record.

The Broward school district has altered the program in response to the criticism, including limiting participation to three times in a student’s lifetime. The district’s "Eliminating the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline Collaborative" committee considered more updates at its meeting on Thursday.

Hear more about a Broward County Public Schools meeting on the PROMISE program Thursday.

Assistant State Attorney and committee member Maria Schneider supports the program but said law enforcement could be more involved in the process of referring offenses to PROMISE.

“It seems that in the past, the schools have wanted to keep law enforcement away from making the decision of whether a particular set of behaviors rises to the level of a PROMISE offense or is perhaps more serious,” said Schneider, who leads the juvenile unit in the Broward State Attorney’s office.

Still, toward the end of the meeting committee members and attendees agreed PROMISE was receiving unfair criticism after the Parkland shooting. They said it helps children who have experienced trauma in their childhood and argued PROMISE has been a target because the public misunderstands it.

Anthony DeMarco with the Broward Sheriff’s Office said officials must start doing a better job of promoting the program’s advantages.

“These are success stories. And I think it’s a huge point that we’ve missed in the PROMISE program all of these years — marketing the program to the naysayers,” DeMarco said.

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