Making Schools Safer: Harsh Consequences, Or Second Chances? : NPR Ed The tragedy in Parkland, Fla., this year kicked off a national debate over how to reduce school violence: through tighter security and tougher discipline ... or more help for troubled students?
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Making Schools Safer: Harsh Consequences, Or Second Chances?

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Making Schools Safer: Harsh Consequences, Or Second Chances?

Making Schools Safer: Harsh Consequences, Or Second Chances?

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The school year has come to a close in much of the country, but the national debate over how to make schools safer goes on. After mass school shootings in Florida and Texas, there have been calls to harden schools - more security, tougher doors, tougher windows, arming teachers. And then there are those who say schools should be softer, more welcoming, places where students can make mistakes and troubled students can get help. One hot spot for the debate is Broward County, Fla. - that's home to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. We begin our report with Jessica Bakeman from member station WLRN.

JESSICA BAKEMAN, BYLINE: Over the past five years, thousands of students in Broward County who got in trouble for doing something like smoking pot or fighting at school were referred to what's called the PROMISE program. Like BriAnne, who's 17 and just graduated from high school - she's now headed to a local college with hopes of studying medicine. We're using just her middle name to protect her privacy.

BRIANNE: My freshman year, I was hanging out with the wrong group of kids. There was peer pressure involved. You know, you do things you don't really mean and simple mistakes.

BAKEMAN: BriAnne got caught using drugs and spent 10 days in the PROMISE program, which is housed at an alternative school, where she got some extra help. The diversion program offers intensive, targeted counseling. For example, if students get in fights, they can get instruction in anger management or conflict resolution. If it's drugs, maybe substance abuse help.

BRIANNE: You're lucky if you get the chance to redeem yourself and try again.

BAKEMAN: The Obama administration made PROMISE a national model for how to limit the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. But programs like these have come under scrutiny since the shooting by a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The shooter, it emerged, had been referred to the PROMISE program. It's unclear whether he participated. That gave opponents of these softer discipline approaches a huge target.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I want to talk about PROMISE.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Eliminate the PROMISE program.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: PROMISE program - it allowed potentially dangerous students to be in traditional public schools.

BAKEMAN: Critics like these speakers at public forums here in Broward and around the country say the PROMISE program is an example of lax discipline policies. They worry students are getting away with dangerous behavior and putting other kids at risk. Andrew Pollack, who lost his daughter, Meadow, in the shooting, has met with President Trump to push for stronger security measures. He recently called PROMISE a cancer.

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ANDREW POLLACK: Leniency policy, the political correctness, that's a cancer that led up to February 14 of non-reporting of criminals that go to the schools in Broward.

BAKEMAN: Max Schachter's son, Alex, also died in the shooting.

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MAX SCHACHTER: Everybody needs a second chance. But at some point, we need to hold everybody accountable.

BAKEMAN: He and other parents of victims are part of a local task force and a state commission. Both are considering the role discipline policies might have played in their efforts to make sure what happened on February 14 doesn't happen again.

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SCHACHTER: We don't want these kids to slip through the cracks.

BAKEMAN: For months, the superintendent of Broward County schools resisted pushback against the PROMISE program. But in a recent interview with a CBS affiliate in Miami, Robert Runcie now says...

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ROBERT RUNCIE: Everything's on the table. We're going to be looking at our whole entire discipline system.

BAKEMAN: The chair of the state commission that's investigating the shooting, Bob Gualtieri, is sheriff in Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg. His group spent hours questioning state and local school officials about PROMISE earlier this month.

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BOB GUALTIERI: We need to determine whether the PROMISE program had any bearing or impact.

BAKEMAN: If they decide that it did, what happens next will be up to Florida's state legislature when it reconvenes in March. And any changes to the PROMISE program will be closely watched around the country. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Bakeman in Miami.

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