Broward schools' 'culture of leniency' may have been too easy on Nikolas Cruz, report finds

A new report is questioning whether a “culture of leniency” at Broward County schools in Florida allowed Parkland school massacre suspect Nikolas Cruz to slip through the cracks.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that Cruz was suspended at least 67 days over less than a year and a half at Westglades Middle School; his infractions continued at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, until he finally was forced to leave.

Cruz, 19, is charged with 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the Valentine’s Day shooting. His lawyers repeatedly have said Cruz would plead guilty if guaranteed a sentence of life without parole, but prosecutors have sought the death penalty.

Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie didn’t immediately return Fox News’ request for comment.

Florida school officials said last week that Cruz was referred during middle school to a mentoring program aimed at steering children away from the criminal justice system.

The school district last week clarified that Cruz was referred to the program while at middle school in 2013 but he didn’t fully participate, and that he did not participate in the program at all while at Stoneman Douglas.

Runcie told the Sun Sentinel that Cruz had been referred to the program in 2013 for vandalizing a bathroom. Cruz did not complete the three-day stint, the district told the Sun Sentinel, but administrators haven’t said why.

Hunter Pollack, whose sister Meadow Pollack was killed in the shooting, said in a Tweet last week: “the PROMISE program you implemented in our schools allowed 18-1958 stay to in the @browardschools. It cost 17 lives. Our school board is filled with compulsive liars. This must stop.”

The PROMISE program was aimed at reducing recidivism rates for students who commit non-violent misdemeanors and keeping them out of the juvenile justice system. The program helps students develop pro-social and resiliency skills, improve academics and may address family and community struggles that may be contributing to behavior issues, according to the school district’s website.

School officials said the program can last for as little as two days. Each case varies.

According to the Sun Sentinel, the school system’s lenient discipline was an added public-relations benefit to showcase lower suspensions, expulsions and arrests along with rising graduation rates.

The program, according to the paper, allows a student to commit a subsequent infraction without being considered a repeat offender as long as it’s not the exact same violation in the exact same year. A clean slate is started the following year.

“It’s extremely problematic,” Tim Sternberg, a former assistant principal at Pine Ridge Educational Center who administered the PROMISE program, told the Sun Sentinel. “You can develop a psyche that it is OK to commit crime because you can refresh the clock every year.”

More than five years ago, for instance, according to the Sun Sentinel, a high school student who used profanity toward a staff member would receive a three- to 10-day suspension. That was reduced to one to two days in recent years. The first violation for disruptive classroom behavior called for an in-school suspension of one to five days. In recent years, it was reduced to a suspension of under one day, the paper reported.

According to the Sun Sentinel, Mary Fitzgerald taught for 37 years in the district before retiring from Sunrise Middle in Fort Lauderdale in 2016 because of her concerns about student discipline.

“It was so many things. I had three students bring knives to my classroom. One was out of the classroom for one day. Another had so many things on his record, he was gone for five days. None were expelled,” she told the Sun Sentinel. “My principal basically would tell me it was his job to market the school. He was adamant about not looking bad.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.