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Parkland Shooting Suspect Lost Special-Needs Help at School When He Needed It Most

Parkland Shooting Suspect Lost Special-Needs Help at School When He Needed It Most

By Patricia Mazzei

MIAMI — Nikolas Cruz was an 18-year-old junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., when a spate of disturbing behavior led to a fateful meeting about the future of his schooling.

Education specialists told Mr. Cruz he should transfer to Cross Creek, an alternative school for students with emotional problems where he had thrived in ninth grade. His mother, Lynda Cruz, agreed.

But Mr. Cruz was legally an adult, and he wanted to graduate from Stoneman Douglas, according to a new report released late Friday by the Broward County Public Schools.  A Cross Creek staffer gave him three options: transfer to the school, sue the school district, or stay at Stoneman Douglas — without any of the special-needs assistance he had relied on since he’d been found to be developmentally delayed at age 3.

The options, the school district’s new report found, were insufficient: Mr. Cruz by law and district policy should have been able to remain at Stoneman Douglas with special-needs protections. He didn’t know that but chose to stay anyway, no longer receiving any help or accommodations. It was Nov. 3, 2016.

On Feb. 8, 2017, Mr. Cruz’s failing grades forced him to withdraw from school. On Feb. 11, 2017, he legally bought an AR-15 assault rifle. It would be used a year later, almost to the day, when the authorities say he returned to Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14 and killed 17 students and staff members in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. Mr. Cruz, now 19, remains in jail awaiting trial on charges of capital murder.

The new details about Mr. Cruz’s educational record come from a consultant’s report commissioned by the Broward school district to review how it handled Mr. Cruz’s education. A judge ordered the release of the review, conducted by the Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee, over the objections of Mr. Cruz’s defense lawyers after several news organizations, including The New York Times, sued to make it public.

The report found little fault in the school district’s handling of Mr. Cruz’s special needs. Yet two key errors his junior year left Mr. Cruz without therapeutic services from the district for more than a year before the shooting and prevented him from returning to Cross Creek, the only high school where he had improved his behavior and found some academic success. They are the latest in a series of lapses by federal, state and local officials who came in contact with Mr. Cruz during his troubled teenage years but failed to take actions that might have prevented the shooting.

“We accept the recommendations regarding procedural improvements, and are pleased with the overall review, recommendations and findings,” Robert W. Runcie, the Broward schools superintendent, said in a statement on Friday. “We are actively reviewing our policies and procedures, training protocols and data systems in an effort to implement the recommendations in a timely and effective way.”

Much of the educational report was redacted, as approved by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer to protect Mr. Cruz’s privacy. But the text of the blacked-out document could nevertheless be extracted, copied and pasted into another file so that it could be read in full. The content of the unredacted document was first reported by The Sun Sentinel of South Florida.

The report revealed that two months after Mr. Cruz was forced to leave Stoneman Douglas, he tried to take the school’s earlier advice and enroll in Cross Creek. His mother said “he had come to realize that the only way he would achieve his goal of graduating from high school” was to do so, the report says.

The district was required to respond to Mr. Cruz’s request for special-needs services, known as exceptional student education, within 30 days, the report found. Instead, the district told Mr. Cruz that it would need to evaluate his eligibility for assistance — despite his 15-year record in the school system — and that the process could take six weeks.

The process never began: For a new special-needs evaluation to take place, Mr. Cruz first had to re-enroll in Stoneman Douglas. An administrator said it was too late in the school year to take him back.

Mr. Cruz had done well at Stoneman Douglas when he began attending the school part-time as a sophomore, after attending Cross Creek as a freshman and for part of eighth grade, according to the report. By the middle of his sophomore year, Mr. Cruz was at Stoneman Douglas full-time. Mr. Cruz joined the Junior R.O.T.C., had a girlfriend and was suspended only once, for making “inappropriate comments,” the report says.

The report judged that the decision to move Mr. Cruz to Stoneman Douglas was “appropriate,” even though the school discontinued his behavior intervention plan, intended to inform all of Mr. Cruz’s educators about his problems and how to help him work on them.

Mr. Cruz had exhibited aggression starting in prekindergarten, according to the report. A psychological evaluation conducted when he was 5 described the young Mr. Cruz as “impulsive with no sense of boundary; thus, he acts out his fantasies, often explosively, in expressing his feelings of stress and anxiety.”

His behavior worsened in middle school. Security or school staff members were required to escort Mr. Cruz around campus, including to the restroom. Outbursts of profanity, disruptive behavior and pulling a false fire alarm resulted in suspensions and his expulsion from the school bus. In eighth grade, he was referred to a disciplinary program for breaking the handle on a bathroom faucet. Mr. Cruz never completed the program.

His junior year, Mr. Cruz appeared to have a breakdown. He cut himself, threatened to hurt others and claimed he had ingested gasoline in a possible suicide attempt. Stoneman Douglas officials considered trying to have Mr. Cruz involuntarily committed for a mental-health evaluation, though they ultimately did not. Their assessment of Mr. Cruz concluded with the recommendation that he return to Cross Creek — the offer he rejected.

Here’s what Broward schools knew about Parkland shooter — details revealed by mistake

By Brittany Wallman and Paula McMahon for the South Florida Sun Sentinel

In the year leading up to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killer Nikolas Cruz was stripped of the therapeutic services disabled students need, leaving him to navigate his schooling as a regular student despite mounds of evidence that he wasn’t.

When he asked to return to a special education campus, school officials fumbled his request.

Those conclusions were revealed Friday in a consultant’s report commissioned by the Broward public school system. Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer ordered that the report be released publicly, but with nearly two-thirds of the content blacked out.

The school district said the alterations were needed to comply with the shooter’s privacy rights, but the method the district used to conceal the text failed. The blacked-out text became visible when pasted into another computer file.

What emerged was the first detailed account of Cruz’s years in the school system, what the school district knew about him and what mistakes were made.

Without directly criticizing the schools, the consultant, the Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee, recommended that the district reconsider how cases like Cruz’s are handled. The recommendations suggest that Cruz could have been offered more help in his final two years in high school, leading up to the Feb. 14 shooting.

Whether that would have changed the outcome is impossible to know.

The consultant found that the district largely followed the laws, providing special education to the shooter starting when he was 3 years old and had already been kicked out of day care. But “two specific instances were identified,” the report says, where school officials did not follow the requirements of Florida statute or federal laws governing students with disabilities.

Those instances:

— School officials misstated Cruz’s options when he was faced with being removed from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School his junior year, leading him to refuse special education services.

— When Cruz asked to return to the therapeutic environment of Cross Creek School for special education students, the district “did not follow through,” the report reveals.

In part because of the errors, Cruz had no school counseling or other special education services in the 14 months leading up to the shooting on Feb. 14, the report says.

In an interview late Friday night, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said that district officials had wanted to release the full report but did not intentionally post it in a way that allowed the blacked-out portions to be read. “I didn’t even know that was possible,” he said.

Runcie said the redaction of parts of the report was to comply with judges’ orders and the defense’s objections to the report being made public: “It should not be insinuated or suggested at all that we wanted to redact or hide portions from the public.”

He said the purpose of the report was to explain to the public what happened, to fix any problems identified by the experts and to provide better training for staff in the future. The details accidentally revealed do not alter any of the conclusions, Runcie said.

“Nobody ever said this was an average child,” Runcie said of Cruz. “The district was the one — out of all the agencies — that was providing some level of service to the child.”

In the past, Runcie said that when Cruz turned 18 and rejected special education placement, the district could no longer provide him with the services given to students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. But the consultant’s report reveals for the first time that Cruz himself requested to return to special education, and his request went nowhere.

Three days after he was forced by the district to withdraw from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, he purchased an AR-15 rifle. A year after his ejection from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a school he insisted he would graduate from, he returned and murdered 14 students and three coaches.

Some special education experts have told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that the district should have looked for other ways to help him in his final two years of school, before the shooting. The district treated him like a general education student for his final two years. Cruz left Stoneman Douglas two or three months after giving up his special education services.

The long-awaited analysis largely absolves the district of culpability, minimizing mistakes as “compliance concerns” and noting the analysis was not done “through the lens of hindsight.”

“Remembering that throughout the student’s school career his … teams were acting without benefit of foresight regarding the incident that occurred in February 2018, the decisions they made were reasonable given the available information at the time,” the consultant concluded. “With few exceptions, the district adhered to [federal law].”

Runcie said the review shows that the district’s “systems are appropriate” and that the district worked consistently “to provide an education and ongoing, changing behavioral care for Cruz throughout his time in the Broward school system.”

Cruz’s attorneys called the report a “whitewash” commissioned by the school district to clear it of responsibility for how it handled Cruz’s complex psychological problems.

“I think that the report is an attempt by the school board to absolve itself of any liability or responsibility for all the missed opportunities that they had in this matter,” said Gordon Weekes, the chief assistant public defender who is the spokesman for the defense team.

The report does recommend changes, but many are not specific and don’t say how the Cruz case brought the weaknesses to light. For example: “Review existing data systems to identify redundancies and inefficiencies and determine the most effective way to integrate multiple systems, maximizing accuracy and shareability across users.”

The district paid the Tallahassee-based consultant $60,000 for the review.

Animal fantasies

Neither of the parents who adopted Cruz as a child could be consulted for the report. Roger Cruz died of a heart attack in front of Nikolas Cruz when he was 5. Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia last November.

But the consultant found that Cruz, by the time he was 3, had already been kicked out of a pre-kindergarten program and was identified as a developmentally delayed student needing special education.

He was aggressive — biting, pinching, scratching and pulling hair. He had trouble communicating and following instructions. And he exhibited “animal fantasies” that led to a parent-teacher conference and the assignment of a family counselor in the home. Despite “high levels of reinforcement,” his aggressive animal-like behaviors “appeared to be unpredictable,” the report says, citing school records.

“It must be noted that in particular, [the student] seems to identify as an animal,” the report says, citing an evaluation completed when Cruz was 5. “He often crawls on the floor or ground, pounces on another student, makes seemingly animal-like growling sounds and grimaces while holding his hands in a paw-like manner.”

He eventually dropped the predatory animal fixation, but his behavior continued to be tinged with physical violence.

The special education designation brought extra care and attention — in-home family counseling, speech therapy, a peer counselor, extra time to do his work, waivers from some testing, continual reviews of his progress and his struggles, meetings with family. But each attempt to transition him to a regular classroom failed. His outbursts and physical aggression in first grade required him to be removed from class at least four of five days, and several times a day on certain days, for example.

His third-grade teacher reported that he was “often sad and pessimistic” and apologized unnecessarily. He needed structure and predictability.

“The results of the evaluation revealed clinically significant levels of hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, and depression behaviors and feelings at school,” the report states.

Some of the school interventions drew attention to his differentness. He had a harness on the school bus in pre-kindergarten. And at the start of his eighth-grade year, he was placed on “escort only” status at Westglades Middle School in Parkland. He was to be accompanied by a security specialist or staff member wherever he went, including the restroom or when moving from one class to another.

Over the years, his behavior patterns did not change, except to worsen.

Though he didn’t want to be in a school for kids with troubles, he excelled when during his eighth-grade year, he was moved back to a full-time special education campus at Cross Creek School, a Pompano Beach school for children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.

“By all reports the placement at Cross Creek was effective,” the report says.

That’s where he might have remained, had the district not decided to give him a chance at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Send him to MSD

He still exhibited emotional and behavioral problems, but in May 2015, during his ninth-grade year, when he was 16, school officials recommended he return to a “mainstream setting,” at least for part of the day.

“Although [the student] has made behavioral progress he continues to lack impulse control. He needs to be monitored while in both the school and neighborhood communities,” a report in March 2015 said.

He would attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High for ROTC and intensive reading, they decided. In addition, they agreed to “discontinue the behavior intervention plan. During interviews school staff explained that this decision was based on the fact that the target behaviors were no longer in evidence and the plan was no longer needed.”

Behavior intervention plans ensure that everyone dealing with a student knows what sets him off and how to reinforce better behavior.

In January 2016, during his 10th-grade year, he became a full-time student there. Just three weeks later, the Broward Sheriff’s Office got a tip that he posted on Instagram that he planned to shoot up a school.

Collaborative Educational Network determined that the decision to send him there was the right one.

“Based on the available evidence, the student’s transition to the less restrictive environment of a traditional school campus was appropriate,” the report says. His only discipline that semester was a two-day in-school suspension for “inappropriate comments.” He had a girlfriend, the report says, and still strongly desired to join the military after graduating.

Time to go

As had been the case in the past, his success was short-lived.

He had an emotional meltdown in September of his junior year. And on Nov. 3 that year, a meeting of Stoneman and Cross Creek specialists was convened. Lynda Cruz was present.

With her son not in the room, those in attendance agreed he should return to Cross Creek school. They knew he’d be upset. His mother agreed with the transfer, but she told those in the room that she thought he would reject the idea. It was up to him, they said. He had turned 18 on Sept. 24.

“Upon entering the room and seeing the Cross Creek representatives, the student immediately became upset and verbally aggressive. He refused to sit at the table, angrily repeating that he would not go back to Cross Creek and that he wanted only to stay at Stoneman. He intended to graduate from the school,” the report says, summarizing what those in the meeting said in interviews with the consultant.

“They were consistent in their description of what occurred during the meeting and in their distress at the outcome,” the consultant wrote.

Two Cross Creek personnel took him aside and told him his options: He could return to Cross Creek to work on his behavior, he could sue the district to try to reverse the decision, or he could remain at Douglas as a regular student, rejecting all special treatment and services for kids with challenges.

He told them he wasn’t going to Cross Creek. Still, he didn’t put the decision in writing. Douglas staff nudged him about it and wrote it up for him.

The moment he signed the form, he lost all protections for disabled students under federal law. Though the district knew he needed services and had put in writing just two weeks prior that he “requires access to therapeutic support as needed through-out the school day at this time,” they began treating him “in the same way as any general education student.”

The consultant said the options laid out for Cruz were incorrect. Cruz could have remained at Douglas with his current rights and services, and the district had the burden of proving he should be transferred to Cross Creek.

The consultant recommended the district review and revise guidelines governing cases like this, including cases where the student doesn’t follow through by signing paperwork to revoke special education. Staff should “remain neutral and [be] able to act without either promoting or hindering the revocation” of services, the consultant recommended.

The recommendations also suggest that Cruz wasn’t offered help that general education students are entitled to.

The district should review and revise current training, the report says, for when “a student is known to have social/emotional or behavioral needs and therefore, as a general education student, should have access to the counseling and mental health services available to all students through the district’s multi-tiered system of supports.”

By February, without the extra protections, he was failing most classes and administrators told him it was time to go.

He was referred to Riverside Off Campus Learning Center at Taravella High School, where students work independently online. There is supervision, but there is no one teaching course content, though Cruz struggled with academics his entire life.

“On February 8, 2017, the student withdrew from Stoneman,” the report says. “He did not return to the school until the day of the incident, just over one year later,” the report says, obliquely referring to the murders.

He was on track to graduate during the time he received special education services, the report says.

After he signed the paperwork to leave special education, he earned only two credits over a year and a half — and none from three alternative education schools he attended.

Change of heart

Two months after he was kicked out of the high school, his mother called to say he had changed his mind. He wanted to return to Cross Creek.

“She said he had come to realize that the only way he would achieve his goal of graduating from high school would be to return to Cross Creek,” the report says.

The district had 15 years of paperwork on Cruz but determined he would have to be evaluated and found eligible for exceptional student education services, a process Douglas High estimated would take six weeks. On that point, the consultant again refrained from criticizing directly, but suggested the district revise its rules in cases where the evidence that the student needs special education is already firmly in place.

Special education specialists at Cross Creek, Stoneman Douglas and at Riverside, where he was a student, all were involved in his request to return to Cross Creek’s special education campus. Ultimately, the administrators at Stoneman Douglas, where he was to re-enroll for a new evaluation, refused to accept him back.

The consultant gave a light touch to the mistake, saying the district had an obligation to respond to the student’s request for special education services within 30 days and “this did not occur.”

Senior year

At the beginning of his senior year in September 2017, back at Riverside school, he was taking a standardized test that, as a general education student, he needed in order to graduate.

The proctor told him his test would be invalidated because he had a cellphone. He became upset, saying, “No, this can’t be.” He shouted “I hate this school!” and threw a chair across the room.

He transferred to another alternative public high school, the Dave Thomas Education Center, where teachers “described him as a quiet, polite student who tried to do well but struggled academically. They made a point to saying that he did not exhibit any of the aggressive or dangerous behaviors reported elsewhere, nor, despite the fact that almost all of his teachers were minorities, did he show any of the racial or ethnic bias they had heard about in the news.”

On Nov. 1, his mother, an advocate throughout his schooling, unexpectedly died.

Staff at Dave Thomas encouraged him to return to the school, but he and his brother Zachary had moved to the Lantana Cascade Mobile Home Park in Palm Beach County to live with a former Parkland neighbor, Rocxanne Deschamps. Deschamps kicked him out several weeks later.

In mid-December, after moving in with a Parkland family, he enrolled at another school, the Off Campus Learning Center at Rock Island. He remained there, the report says, until “the incident.”

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