The problem with Parkland [Updated]

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Easily dismissed conspiracy theories and journalistic deference toward school administrators seem to have resulted in less aggressive coverage of the district’s role in the events leading up to the February 14th school shooting. 

By Alexander Russo

UPDATE: On Friday, two days after this column was originally published, the Sun Sentinel published a scathing account of Broward Schools stonewalling media requests and failing to cooperate with investigators on the Parkland shooting — news that had not previously been shared with the public. On Saturday, the Sun Sentinel published troubling new information about lax discipline practices in Broward schools leading up to the Parkland shooting.

On Sunday, WLRN Miami public radio reporter Jessica Bakeman produced a deep dive into Broward County’s much-debated school discipline diversion program that also revealed that the teen who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on February 14 had once been referred to the program.

This new information directly contradicted the school district’s repeated claims that the student who committed the Parkland shooting was in no way connected to the diversion program (called PROMISE). In late February, for example, Broward schools superintendent Robert Runcie had said that the Parkland shooter “was never a participant in the PROMISE program.”

The revelation in the WLRN report angered some students, parents, and educators who felt misled and who worried that the program was creating dangerous situations for students attending Broward, the 6th largest school district in the nation. The news that the shooter had been referred to PROMISE was either an egregious mistake or a blatant lie. Calls for the resignation of Runcie flew across social media.

“Move over, Sheriff Scott Israel,” wrote Politico’s Marc Caputo, referring to the much-criticized local law enforcement head. “A new Broward County official has made himself the face of bureaucratic gaffes.”

But the WLRN revelation also reinforced long-held suspicions from some community members and many on the political right that mainstream news outlets had done an inadequate job scrutinizing whether the district had done all it could have to prevent the tragedy, especially when it came to PROMISE (which stands for Preventing Recidivism Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education).

Reaction headlines like this one from the right-leaning Daily Wire were the predictable result: Parkland Shooter Was Assigned To Obama-Era Program, Superintendent Lied, Report Suggests.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden accused news outlets of having “lapped up” a carefully parsed Runcie narrative and misleading the public about what he claims is one of the major contributing factors behind the high school massacre. According to the right-leaning Eden, media coverage had been “grossly irresponsible.”

Few others go as far as Eden in deriding the media coverage or laying blame on the PROMISE program. Indeed, the program may end up having had little or nothing to do with the shooter’s trajectory. However, looking back at some of the key coverage of the past two months and talking to journalists and observers closely watching the story, it seems fair to say that media attention has focused much more coverage on local law enforcement, the mental health system, state lawmakers, gun laws, and the FBI than on the school district.

The factors that may have contributed to relatively soft reporting on this front are many, including the immediate challenges of obtaining students’ school records and – most intriguing to me – the deferential attitude some reporters may have taken toward the school and the district in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The result is that, even now, too many questions remain surrounding the shooter’s key interactions with the school district, more than two months after the event.

nyt parkland

The New York Times dismissed Republican efforts to link Parkland to school discipline policies and the Obama administration

Despite the imbalance in coverage during the aftermath of the February shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, news outlets were nonetheless producing outstanding coverage. Along with covering the unfolding story, reporters uncovered inaction or ineptitude by many agencies and actors. These include the FBI, which failed to follow up on a tip, local law enforcement, which failed to respond as quickly as it could have once the shooting started, and mental health systems, which seem not to have communicated effectively with school and law enforcement.

In addition, no reasonable claim can be made that flaws in the PROMISE program (much less the 2014 Obama school discipline guidance) were the cause of the Parkland tragedy, or allowed it to happen. The referral to PROMISE took place five years ago. The role that PROMISE could or should have played in his trajectory remains unknown. The most important shortcoming by the district might be its comprehensive discipline and intervention program, at least as far as the shooting is concerned, not specifically PROMISE.

Still, the questions about quality, depth, and breadth of the coverage are legitimate. By and large, news outlets have focused much more attention on the survivors, the gun control movement that’s arisen out of the tragedy, and the other agencies involved. The shooter’s long, complicated timeline as a Broward student hasn’t received the same kind of close scrutiny.

miami new times parkland bogus claim

The Miami New Times described the connection as “bogus.”

A few outlets – the New York Times, Washington Post, US News among them – addressed the claims that the shooter had slipped through the cracks because of the district’s school discipline reform program.

But many, if not most, of the reporters who checked out the story found little to report. Claims by conservative sources were inflammatory and often incorrect, including the contention that the Broward program was concocted by the Obama administration and that Runcie was handpicked for the Broward job because he worked for Arne Duncan back in Chicago.

Those on the right were particularly displeased by a March 13 New York Times story by Erica Green dismissing the alleged links between the Obama-era school safety guidelines and the Parkland tragedy. “Conservative commentators — looking for a culprit — seized on an unlikely target: an Obama-era guidance document that sought to rein in the suspensions and expulsions of minority students,” Green wrote.

The Miami New Times went even further, publishing a story headlined Marco Rubio Pushes Bogus Claim That Broward School’s Disciplinary Policy to Blame for Shooting and accusing Rubio and others of “ignoring the real problem [and] deliberately misleading the public about PROMISE.”

Though I am not privy to its paywalled reporting, Eden and others on the right claim that Politico was particularly vehement in its insistence that there was no link between the PROMISE program, the shooter, or the 2014 Obama guidance.

There was the occasional examination of the school district’s role. The Washington Post took an early look at the school’s role determined that the eventual shooter had been identified for services by the school district numerous times and hadn’t “slipped through the cracks.” A Miami Herald piece explored the tensions between students’ rights and keeping schools safe: Parkland shooter always in trouble, never expelled. Could school system have done more? The Miami New Times story from early March raises questions about why he hadn’t been referred to law enforcement and/or arrested for his threats against students and the school.

But it was mostly right-leaning outlets that covered the story aggressively. Other outlets covered it in passing, or not at all.  In this context, Runcie and others could call the PROMISE storyline “fake news” and get away with it.

miami herald parkland story

Occasionally, news outlets like the Miami Herald addressed school procedures that might have been a factor.

Here are some possible reasons why the media might have treated school officials relatively gently:

ACCESS: The most immediate obstacle to reporting the school district angle was that reporters couldn’t get hold of the shooter’s full school discipline record. The district long claimed it couldn’t release it because of FERPA, the federal privacy law that protects student data from public scrutiny (and at times protects school systems, too). “I mean, only but so many people have access to discipline records,” the New York Times’ Erica Green noted Monday in response to the WLRN revelation.

DISTRACTION: Another factor that seems to have diminished attention from the district’s role was the focus on the circumstances surrounding the shooting itself. It may have been easier to focus attention and assign culpability to others — the FBI for failing to follow up on a phone call, the school resource officer for failing to confront the shooter, lax state gun control laws – than it was to tease out the school system’s possible culpability in the years leading up to the event.

DISINFORMATION: The highly-politicized media environment may have played a role in distracting reporters from this aspect of the story or downplaying its role. The fact that it was largely conservatives pushing the district-shortcomings storyline – with key inaccuracies – may have short-circuited journalists’ willingness to consider its merits. Nobody wanted to give voice to some far-right notion that seems designed to politicize the situation and tear down a program.

DEFERENCE: Runcie had all the reasons in the world to want the shooter and PROMISE kept separate. Some of his statements about the relationship between the two were carefully parsed. However, by and large, the media has been “deferential” to the district and superintendent Runcie, according to RedefinED editor Travis Pillow, whose outlet supports school choice. In the aftermath of the crisis, Runcie took on the role of the voice of reason, observes Pillow. And the district was treated in some ways as a victim of the shooting, he says. As a result, Pillow says, the district “didn’t receive the same scrutiny as the other agencies.”

wlrn parkland story

Sunday night’s WLRN story should generate more attention toward Broward’s school discipline procedures.

The questions have been out there. Many of them remain unanswered. Among them: How did the eventual shooter avoid arrest, referral to juvenile justice, or suspension when he didn’t complete his three-day assignment to PROMISE? How was he reassigned to Stoneman Douglas after having been sent to an alternative school called Cross Creek? How did he avoid being referred to law enforcement and/or being arrested before he was expelled from Stoneman Douglas, which could have made it harder for him to buy a gun?

However, it took until this weekend, more than two months past the tragic events, for us to get a deep dive into the PROMISE program. The story was eminently reportable for anyone with the time, persistence, and focus to do so. No breaking of the law, or even legal wrangling, was required. Just some old-fashioned shoe leather.

“I still think that there’s a lot that we don’t know,” says the Miami New Times’ Brittany Shammas. “Different outlets are getting different information. It’s all very piecemeal.”

A former PROMISE administrator named Tim Sternberg with detailed knowledge of the practices and procedures involved in Broward’s school discipline and referral system seems to have been under-used thus far.

It’s not so much that we should expect the media to have uncovered the story immediately. It takes time, effort, and luck to find these kinds of things. But the credulity and apparent lack of skepticism with which the media accepted the district’s pronouncements are not what you want from a newsroom. And the failure to indicate to readers that there were concerns or controversy surrounding the issue is another problem. Even if all the facts aren’t known, reporters have an obligation to tell readers about a brewing controversy.

To some observers, the Runcie revelation is mystifying and disappointing but not all that important to Parkland. The incident took place so long ago. PROMISE is only a part of a much broader school discipline system in Broward. To others, the Runcie revelation is an indication of a weak spot in media coverage that still needs to be addressed.

Cut through the right-wing fever dream of a school shooting that can be blamed on the Obama administration and you have the question whether attempts to revamp school discipline discouraged educators and police from reporting and acting on situations that may later prove dangerous. We still don’t know exactly what happened.

Key coverage:

WSJ: Lawmakers Focus on Obama-Era Discipline Policies After Florida School Shooting

US News: Did an Obama-Era School Discipline Policy Contribute to the Parkland Shooting?

Washington Post: Teachers say Florida suspect’s problems started in middle school, and the system tried to help him

NYT: Trump Finds Unlikely Culprit in School Shootings: Obama Discipline Policies

City Journal: How Did the Parkland Shooter Slip Through the Cracks?

Miami New Times: Runcie Blames District Record-Keeping for Misinformation

Related coverage:

How the Washington Post missed the DC schools graduation rate scandal so badly, for so long

 

 

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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