Teachers had long feared shooter
A year and a half before MSD massacre, survey found Cruz was troubled
A year and a half before the Stoneman Douglas massacre, some of the shooter’s teachers were surveyed about his behavior. They wrote that he made threats. He was fascinated with guns. They were afraid of him.
Nikolas Cruz told an administrator that shooting guns helped him relieve stress. And when the school district judged whether he might harm other students, he met all of the criteria for aggression and depression.
Those observations, however, were never relayed to police or to mental health workers evaluating whether to hospitalize him for psychiatric care, the South Florida Sun Sentinel has found.
“Those teacher comments are extremely relevant. There is stuff in them somebody doing an assessment should have been aware of,” said Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the state-appointed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which did an exhaustive review of the Broward school district’s handling
of Nikolas Cruz.
The school district’s failure to share the teachers’ observations is another unfortunate turn in the litany of missed opportunities to intervene and disrupt Nikolas Cruz’s pernicious plan. Had outside police or mental health workers read the teachers’ forms in September 2016, they may have hospitalized Cruz under the state’s so-called “Baker Act.” But they didn’t.
Whether hospitalization would have mattered is debatable. Florida’s mental health system is a revolving door of quick stays without good follow-up care. But the school’s assessment of Cruz points to another persistent and glaring problem: the failure to share information internally and across agencies. The school district cites student privacy laws for carefully guarding information, but the law includes an exception to protect the health or safety of the student or others.
Cruz killed 17 people and injured 17 others with an assault-style rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018.
The clumsy threat assessment “makes me angry because I paid a high price for the mistakes made by the Broward County School District and so did 33 other families and the community at large,” said commission member Ryan Petty, who lost his youngest child, 14-year-old Alaina, in the tragedy.
He and other parents of the dead are demanding accountability for security failures by the schools, in what they are saying is one of the most preventable shootings in decades. The commission found the district didn’t implement the threat assessment of Cruz properly because it did not have a policy based on the latest and best techniques, and it did not fully train administrators and staff. The assistant principal handling Cruz’s assessment had never done one in 31 years as an educator and was not competent in handling the task, the commission reported.
Florida lawmakers last
year passed a law requiring every school to have a threat assessment team, but the commission recently reported the teams still are “not fully developed and there is a need for consistency, training and overall improvement in the threat assessment process.” The commission warned there is no standard process in Florida and “little to no information sharing.”
Fears about Cruz
The Broward School district has been working for months to devise an acceptable policy. On Wednesday, the school board agreed to pay a Boston consulting group about $600,000 to develop an automated threat assessment system that promises to “gather, share and consider data from various data sources to make informed decisions,” according to summary of the agreement.
Threat assessment teams should be proactive, meeting regularly to identify students whose behavior is aberrant or concerning — and work to manage the person to prevent violence before an actual threat, experts told the Stoneman Douglas safety commission.
The commission recommended that the teams seek out information from teachers and others about troubled students and not just wait for reports of threats.
The policy Broward is considering requires threat assessment teams to convene
as the result of an “event,” the school district said in a statement to the Sun Sentinel.
But each Broward school also has “collaborative problem-solving teams” to coordinate services for students and deal with teacher concerns about behavioral issues, disciplinary problems and academic difficulties, Dan Gohl, chief academic officer, told the School Board at a workshop in January.
The Sun Sentinel obtained copies of five teachers’ questionnaires, part of the 2016 threat assessment of Nikolas Cruz conducted by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High when he was in 11th grade.
Learning strategies teacher Maria Colavito, who has declined press interviews, noted on the checklist that Cruz had been found with violent writings and showed a fascination with guns. He was seen with cuts on his face and daily appeared sad. But she wrote she didn’t know “whether this student is serious with his threats or crying out for help?!!”
Next to a question about whether staff were fearful of the student, Colavito wrote: “Me, yes!”
English teacher Laurel Holland revealed that Cruz had poor achievement, poor attendance and poor social skills and appeared to be sad. “Nik is very quiet and when in class does not interact,” she wrote.
In an interview with the Sun Sentinel last year, she
said she knew very little about Cruz.
In another case, U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps instructor Peter Mahmood wrote on the teacher information form that Cruz was quiet and “does not look me in the eye.”
“I am concerned with access to any weapons,” he wrote, noting that Cruz “has been removed from marksmanship (rifle team).” To the question of whether staff were afraid of the student, Mahmood checked yes and wrote “Admin and Teacher.”
He did not respond to a call from the Sun Sentinel seeking comment.
The teacher forms were dated Sept. 30, 2016.
The school had initiated the threat assessment several days earlier, after Cruz reportedly told another student he cut himself, drank gasoline trying to kill himself and had a gun in his room.
“Idk what’s wrong with me iam really sad Idk why,” Cruz messaged the schoolmate.
“Idk” is short for “I don’t know.”
Cruz: Shooting relieves stress
Broward Schools have been conducting threat assessments since 2002 — on average one a day. The district has a 50-page procedures manual based on FBI guidance.
Evaluations occur in three steps and threats range from low to high.
A “low” threat is considered “non-specific and vague.”
A “medium” threat is defined as something that could be carried out but doesn’t seem realistic.
High is direct, specific and plausible.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Assistant Principal Jeff Morford was supposed to conduct the threat assessment on Cruz, but Morford was not familiar with how to do one, so Assistant Principal Denise Reed got it started, the commission found.
She interviewed Cruz and he told her “school is making me unhappy” and shooting a gun “relieves pressure when I’m stressed,” the records show.
He promised, though, that he did not have a “real” gun at home, only a pellet gun.
Reed deemed him a “high level of threat,” according to a document dated Sept. 28, 2016.
A threat risk assessment checklist among the records has 33 questions, organized in 10 categories, to help educators evaluate whether a child is a threat.
Cruz met 22 of them. The document shows Cruz met all factors for aggression and depression and most all of the criteria for narcissism and stress.
Mental health counselors from Henderson Behavioral Health went to his home Sept 28, 2016, and again on Sept. 29, 2016, after the school found he wrote “kill” on a notebook and was talking about buying guns. He’d just turned 18.
After each home visit, the counselors found he did not meet the legal criteria to be hospitalized for a mental evaluation. He appeared calm and denied wanting to hurt himself or anyone else.
The commission, in its official report released in January of this year, wrote that it is “unknown if the Henderson Behavioral Health team or BSO had access to the specific information in the MSDHS threat assessment file, including text messages or the Level 2 Teacher Information Forms.”
Gualtieri said they found no evidence the forms were shared.
In response to questions from the Sun Sentinel, the school district said threat assessments take time to complete and the checklists completed by teachers “are typically not yet available at the time a Baker Act is being conducted due to the immediacy of the Baker Act process and determination.”
Figuring out how the school district’s threat assessment was conducted is difficult because the paperwork was not done properly and key administrators, such as Morford, could not recall much about it, Gualtieri said.
But it does not appear that the teacher observations were ever relayed to police, Henderson Behavioral Health counselors or the district’s threat assessment team so they could reconvene and reconsider whether to hospitalize Cruz, Gualtieri said.
The team consisted of Reed, social worker Marianne Dubin, family counselor Sharon Ehrlich and Scot Peterson, the Broward deputy assigned to the school.
Peterson later was the first armed deputy on the scene of the shooting but never entered the building to confront the killer. He resigned in disgrace.
Morford, Reed and another assistant principal were transferred out of Stoneman Douglas last November. Their actions related to Cruz and the shooting are under review, the district said.
Principal Ty Thompson’s name or signature does not appear on the Cruz threat assessment documents. The commission found that he was not intimately involved in the threat assessment process. The panel urged the school district to investigate his “disengagement.”
He is still the principal and the district said Friday that he is not under investigation.
The new threat assessment policy being considered by the School Board would require the principal to be far more involved, including reviewing all threat assessments “to ensure completeness and fidelity.”
This photo of Nikolas Cruz was released by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission. The image was taken on Cruz’s cellphone on Feb. 5, 2018, nine days before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.