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Controversial Promise program is ending in Broward schools. Here is what’s planned.

The Promise program, an initiative that was once heralded for keeping kids out of jail but got tarnished as a symbol of leniency in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, is ending after a decade in Broward schools.

The School Board voted last week to approve the updated student Code of Conduct, which eliminates referrals to the Promise program as an action that can avoid a student getting suspended or arrested for non-violent misdemeanor offenses, such as vandalism, petty theft and marijuana possession.

But while the name Promise will no longer be associated with the school district, the intervention and counseling services designed to help troubled students will continue, school district officials said. The same Promise curriculum will be used for now while the school district develops a permanent replacement program.

“The supports, resources and services for our kids aren’t going away,” School Board member Torey Alston said.

Board member Allen Zeman said he believes the district will replace Promise “with something that’s even better.”

Students who were previously Promise eligible still go to Pine Ridge Education Center for behavior interventions. But they’ll be doing that only as an alternative to being suspended, not arrested. It will be up to police to decide whether a student’s actions warrants a verbal warning, a non-criminal civil citation or an arrest.

The district will no longer issue civil citations, or non-criminal written warnings that allows law enforcement to know what interventions the children have had previously had. Those decisions will be up to law enforcement. Police may decide to arrest a child if they see that repeated diversions aren’t working.

The district’s new program, which is still being developed, will likely offer help to kids who commit more than just the nine Promise eligible offenses, which are alcohol sales, alcohol use, major disruption on campus, misdemeanor possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia, mutual combat fighting, petty theft, trespassing and vandalism.

Although the district has offered an alternative to external suspension programs for non-criminal offenses for years, the Promise program focused only on criminal offenses.

The Promise program started in 2013, and the district touted the program as a success in its early years, saying it was changing behaviors and keeping kids out of jail. The program was created after data showed Broward led the state in the number of arrests of Black children, many for minor offenses such as throwing spit balls or mouthing off to a teacher.

The program had initial backing from the State Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and the Chief Judge of the 17th Judicial Circuit. Some county law enforcement agencies supported it while others didn’t.

The Obama administration used it as a model for stopping the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipelines and asked other districts in 2014 to consider similar approaches.

But the program became a lightning rod in 2018, following the Stoneman Douglas tragedy.

After conservative critics tried to link killer Nikolas Cruz to the program, then-Superintendent Robert Runcie repeatedly said for two months the gunman had never participated in the program. That turned out to be false, and the district admitted in May 2018 that Cruz had been assigned to the program for vandalism, but never completed it.

Although a commission investigating the Stoneman Douglas tragedy determined in 2018 that Promise had no direct impact on the shooting, the intense scrutiny did identify a number of problems with the program. A South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation in May 2018 found that the program was part of a “culture of tolerance” that allowed troubled students to get repeated second chances. The district also was inflating the success rate of the program, the investigation found.

Another complaint was that law enforcement had no idea if a student participated in the Promise program.

That changed in 2019 when state law required the school district to report Promise-eligible infractions to a state database. This also resulted in students getting the same civil citations for crimes at school that they would get from police if they committed the offense off campus.

In 2019, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission recommended the program be disbanded, after the school district refused to enter Promise data into a state law enforcement database, despite a state law requiring that for diversion programs. The district didn’t want students to build a criminal record and had argued that Promise was an alternative-to-suspension program, not a pre-arrest diversion program.

The state later clarified the language and the district started entering the data in 2021.

A statewide grand jury report, released in 2022, also criticized the program, suggesting the district was using the program to hide student crimes from law enforcement.

But the district’s efforts to run the program in a way that complied with state law created new issues, school district officials said.

A review by the district found that the school district had issued 76% of all civil citations in 2022. The district issued 1,213 last year, compared to 108 by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, 51 by Hollywood police, 39 by Plantation police, 30 by Pembroke Pines and fewer than 30 each for 11 other law enforcement agencies in the county.

Jodi Washington, the district’s director of equity, diversity and school climate, told the School Board in April that many times law enforcement don’t given children civil citations for minor offenses, but the district was required to under the way the Promise program was operating.

Scott Strauss, vice chancellor for for the Florida Department of Education, sent a letter to Superintendent Peter Licata on Sept. 26 encouraging him to end the program.

The statewide grand jury “was highly critical of the PROMISE program for a variety of reasons, but most relevant, for failing to notify law enforcement when crimes occurred on campus,” Strauss wrote, adding, his department “appreciates the district’s commitment to learning from past mistakes.”

Licata said many of the goals of the new program will be the same as Promise, but he said it should be a new program.

“We could do more, but we don’t want to stop what we’re doing,” Licata said. “But I don’t want to be in that environment, where it is an extension of something that people believe failed.”

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