Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who killed 17 people at Broward County Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, used a rifle he purchased legally. Cruz was able to buy the weapon because he had no criminal history that would have triggered warning bells on the federally mandated background check. And those warning bells were not in place at least in part because the local school district had complied with—and even helped inspire—a 2014 letter from President Barack Obama to educators urging them to ease up on school discipline.
The convoluted path from cause to potential effect has been criticized by defenders of the Obama-era school discipline policies, but there is no denying that had school officials referred Cruz to local police on any of several potential criminal cases he might well have been banned from buying that gun.
The tragic story began in 2013 when Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie, a former official of the Obama Department of Education, met with local law enforcement officials and urged that the school, rather than police, thereafter handle many crimes by students, including drug possession and assault. Between 2012 and 2016, arrests on school grounds declined by 63 percent. The new school disciplinary program was called PROMISE.
Obama was impressed enough to invite school officials to a White House conference on “Rethinking Discipline.” Not long after, he issued his now famous “Dear Colleague” letter to education leaders nationwide, urging them to relax school suspension and expulsion measures because, he said, they were disproportionately hard on minority students.
Meanwhile, Cruz was in near-constant trouble at school. School officials at first denied he had been referred to the PROMISE program, which referred offenders to counselors rather than court. They later had to admit that he had in fact earned a middle school PROMISE referral for vandalizing a bathroom.
What is even more clear is that when Cruz brought bullets to school, when he assaulted people, when he was caught with a knife and when he made overt threats, police were never called and he was never subjected to the kind of criminal charges that could have compiled a record that might have stopped him from buying that rifle and killing 17 people.
A May 14 story in the Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper flatly noted that “Broward Schools have grown so tolerant of misbehavior that students like Nikolas Cruz are able to slide by for years without strict punishment for conduct that could be criminal.” The article also noted that Cruz had threatened to “shoot up the school” in 2016, which alone would have been a felony under Florida law and which could have precluded him from buying a weapon had he been prosecuted.
But school shootings are rare; what is much more common are school-based offenses and misbehaviors that disrupt learning and even endanger students, teachers, and staff. And there is increasing evidence that the Obama “Dear Colleague” letter has resulted in many schools softening their disciplinary policies—with unfortunate results.
For example, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio ordered city schools there to reduce suspensions. They complied; suspensions fell dramatically in 2015. And school assaults rose by 48 percent.
The Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty studied the results of softened school disciplinary policies in that state and found that suspensions have dropped by 41 percent—and student test scores were down too, by about a percent and still falling.
Here in Oklahoma, one of the first districts to respond to the “Dear Colleague” letter was Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS), under the leadership of then-Superintendent Rob Neu. New disciplinary policies implemented in OKCPS mirrored those in many other districts, which feared that if they did not comply with Obama’s urging, they might face federal investigations over supposedly discriminatory discipline.
When Nikolas Cruz assaulted people, when he was caught with a knife, and when he made overt threats, he was never subjected to the kind of criminal charges that might have stopped him from buying that rifle and killing 17 people.
By most accounts the Oklahoma City experiment has not been a teacher pleaser.
A 2015 survey by the American Federation of Teachers, bargaining agent for Oklahoma City teachers, found that nearly 90 percent of members were skeptical of the new policies. Respondents used terms like “chaotic classrooms” to describe the results. One said teachers had been reduced to being “babysitters.”
Another reported sustaining “multiple bruises, bite marks, and a knot on my head from a student pulling my hair so hard.”
“Students are yelling, cursing, hitting, and screaming at teachers and nothing is being done but teachers are being told to teach and ignore the behaviors,” said yet another. Ed Allen, AFT president, was quoted as saying, “I have no confidence the district is serious about addressing poor student behavior.”
Thirty six percent of the 836 teachers who responded to the survey said bad behavior in school had increased significantly. Another 24 percent reported at least a slight worsening.
Oklahoma City Public Schools was asked if current disciplinary practices mirrored those cited in previous accounts or if any changes had been made in those policies after teacher complaints. Despite promises to respond via email, no such response was forthcoming.
How much bad behavior is there in Oklahoma schools? Each year the State Department of Education issues a Safe and Drug Free Schools report listing offenses reported to that agency by local schools. Given the large number of schools in the state and the certainty that many such offenses are never even reported to school officials, there are still a large number of potentially criminal acts in our schools each year.
The 2017 report listed 78 arsons, 34 bomb threats, 1,357 acts of vandalism, 1,727 aggravated assaults on students, and an additional 305 targeting teachers and staff. There were 848 reports of fights with injury and a whopping 14,482 without. Schools reported 959 incidents involving knives, 41 of them resulting in injury.
Schools also reported 15 incidents involving handguns and eight involving rifles or shotguns. Three incidents involved multiple firearms. The report does not note what disciplinary actions were taken against students in any of the reported cases.
What is significant is that if there is a Nikolas Cruz out there in an Oklahoma school contemplating mass homicide, school disciplinary policies that treat his preliminary offenses with kid gloves are unlikely to result in the kind of criminal record that would preclude him from getting a gun in the future.