Schools could have done more for Nikolas Cruz, experts say

Scott Travis, Sun Sentinel on

Published in Political News

When Nikolas Cruz turned 18, Broward County schools had to figure out what to do with a troubled student who could legally refuse help.

Their solution was to move Cruz, who was diagnosed with an emotional and behavioral disorder, from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland to a dropout prevention program where he took classes on computer with little interaction with teachers and mental health professionals.

That decision has come under fire from some special-education experts who say the district shirked its responsibility to help a student who was still under its care. On Feb. 14, a year after Cruz was kicked out of Stoneman Douglas, he returned to the school and killed 17 people.

"They can't just wash their hands. They need to keep an eye on the situation," said Mark Kamleiter, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represents families of special-needs children. "If he's a danger to himself or others, they obviously have to do something."

That could mean giving him psychiatric help, offering regular access to counseling, allowing him to stay at Stoneman Douglas but trying to improve his behavior, or trying to persuade him to attend a school that was better suited for him.

Still, some say the school district's ability to serve an adult student who is unwilling to receive help is limited.

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"When you've got a kid that's 18 and the school district offers him services and the kid refuses, your hands are tied," said Pete Wright, a Virginia lawyer who specializes in federal law related to special education.

But Wright said the school district probably missed warnings when Cruz was much younger. Records show he was disciplined numerous times at Westglades Middle in Parkland for unruly and disruptive behavior, and neighbors described him bullying his brother, stealing and being abusive toward animals in elementary school.

"This didn't suddenly happen just because he reached a certain age," Wright said. "This type of thing shows itself for many, many years. The seeds are there, the signs are there in the second, third, fourth grade that he's depressed or having aggressive behavior. Unless the pattern is reversed, there can be horrible complications in the future."

For part of middle and high school, Cruz attended Cross Creek School in Pompano Beach, which specializes in students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. He was allowed to attend his neighborhood school, Stoneman Douglas, for two periods a day in August 2015 and then started attending Stoneman Douglas full time in January 2016. Once at Stoneman Douglas, he was disciplined for fighting, using profanity toward school staff on three occasions and an assault, according to his discipline records.


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