The commission investigating the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., won’t release its final report until the beginning of 2019. But last week it came to an important, early conclusion: The Broward County school system’s restorative justice program played no role in enabling Nikolas Cruz’s murderous rampage.
Administrators referred Cruz to his school’s Promise Program in 2013, after he vandalized a middle school restroom faucet. In the weeks after the shooting that killed 17 people, victims and parents blasted the program for keeping Cruz out of official legal trouble and avoiding criminal charges that could have prevented him from legally buying the gun he used in the attack. He never attended the sessions, an omission administrators couldn’t explain. But Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, from Pinellas County across the state, said even if Cruz had faced criminal charges over that incident, it wouldn’t have stopped him from buying a gun when he turned 18.
Max Eden, a Manhattan Institute scholar who has studied restorative justice programs, called Gualtieri’s conclusions “technically accurate but broadly indefensible.” Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina died in the attack, seemed to agree, blaming the Promise Program for creating a lenient disciplinary atmosphere that allows students like Cruz to avoid consequences for potentially dangerous behavior.
The Promise Program is part of a movement away from traditional school discipline, which tends to rely on suspensions, expulsions, and in-school arrests to keep order. Education leaders want to eschew punitive punishment in favor of so-called restorative justice, which focuses on helping students understand the motives behind their behavior and make better decisions. It’s chiefly designed to reduce the disciplinary actions meted out to minority students, who have higher rates of suspensions and expulsions than their white counterparts.
The popularity of restorative justice programs exploded during the Obama administration, when the U.S. Department of Education issued a warning to school districts: Fix the racial disparity in school discipline numbers or face an investigation and the potential loss of federal funds. Restorative justice offered a quick way for schools to reduce those numbers because students almost never got disciplinary referrals. But bad behavior did not suddenly disappear, Eden noted, citing Cruz as a prime example.
In Broward County, students must be referred to the Promise Program four times before school administrators may involve law enforcement. That discourages administrators from calling the police even after serious threats. Students at Stoneman Douglas told administrators Cruz had threatened to kill people, in writing, but school officials did nothing about it, Eden said.
“The administrators were doing what they were pressured to do, which is try to avoid students getting in trouble, especially into serious trouble,” he noted.
While criticism of restorative justice mounted after the Parkland shooting, opponents have tried for the last 18 months to persuade the Trump administration to rescind the school discipline directive to no avail.
Eden believes lobbying by civil rights activists, who tie school discipline to racism, have made it nearly impossible for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to disavow the restorative justice approach.
“It will be a very difficult move for her to make in terms of public relations, and every time she steps forward to speak about it, her words are not always well chosen, and she ends up taking a little bit of a shellacking in the press,” Eden said.
That same public relations pressure makes it highly unlikely school districts will abandon restorative justice, even though it’s not working the way proponents intended. Eden compared the reality to the plot of the popular HBO crime drama The Wire. The mayor wants crime to go down, so the police chief orders his deputies to ignore lawbreaking.
“If you slap a nice moniker of restorative justice on that, it looks like a victory,” Eden said. “So I think broadly, restorative justice has been more of a fig leaf to cover up this systematic suppression of teachers’ good judgments. It can work, but I don't think it's likely to work if it's being driven from the top down rather than from the bottom up.”