Teach­ers had long feared shooter

A year and a half be­fore MSD mas­sacre, sur­vey found Cruz was trou­bled

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Me­gan O'Matz

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.

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