When a former student now on trial for a shooting in a Parkland, Fla., high school opted out of special education services in November 2016, Broward County Schools began treating him like a general education student and he quit receiving the extensive counseling and support services he’d used to navigate school since he was 3 years old.
Nikolas Cruz, then 18 and a junior, revoked his consent for special education services, and district officials were forced to comply, despite their knowledge of his history of overlapping developmental, behavioral, and emotional issues, a consultant’s review of his educational history, released Friday, found. He made that choice in order to remain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, rather than being transferred to a special education school, as educators had recommended.
Months later, then enrolled at an alternative school to catch up academically, Cruz asked for special education services to be reinstated, the report says, but district officials mishandled his request.
In November 2017, Cruz’s mother died, removing another layer of support (his father had died when he was a young child).
Three months later, on Feb. 14, he entered Stoneman Douglas with an AR-15 rifle, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
“In the aftermath of the tragedy, questions have been raised regarding the district’s response to the student’s repeated disciplinary infractions,” the report says. “As everyone struggles to understand the reason for this devastating act, many members of the public have asked why, with his history of behavioral problems, this student was allowed to attend regular classes on a traditional school campus.”
The district commissioned the outside review by Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee to examine Cruz’s educational history and the policies that were in place during his time as a student. The consultants were not charged with identifying the cause of the gunman’s actions.
“Throughout this time period [Cruz’s time in the district], available evidence indicates that, with isolated exceptions, the district adhered to procedural and substantive requirements when implementing this student’s exceptional education program,” the report says.
Those exceptions: The district misstated Cruz’s options when he decided to opt out of special education services, and it failed to adequately follow up when he asked to have them reinstated, the report says.
The district released the heavily redacted document Friday after a court overruled opposition from the suspect’s attorney, who said it was designed to absolve the district of responsibility and that it would undermine Cruz’s right to a fair trial.
Citing student privacy laws, the school officials blacked out blocks of text throughout the 46-page document, including around 27 pages of specific information related to Cruz. But the redactions were done improperly, leaving the complete text visible when it is copied and pasted into a fresh document, a mistake first discovered by reporters at the Sun-Sentinel Friday night. Hours later, the district pulled the report from its website.
The consultants interviewed administrators and teachers, reviewed records like IEPs, and consulted notes from Cruz’s mother to make their findings. Superintendent Robert Runcie previously told the Sun Sentinel that Cruz rejected special education services once he turned 18, his right under state and federal laws, but Friday’s report is the first revelation that Cruz later asked to reinstate those services.
The consultants’ analysis “was based on the information available to school and district staff at that time,” the report says.
“The appropriateness of their decisions was assessed based on the student’s then-current status rather than through the lens of hindsight,” the report says. “That said, the resulting recommendations are informed by this tragedy. They seek to identify ways district policies and procedures can provide more flexibility while maintaining the individual protections required by law, and to ensure necessary social/emotional and behavioral supports are available to address the increasingly complex needs of today’s students.”
Emotional and Behavioral Challenges
Broward County Schools offered Cruz extensive supports—including in-home family counseling, out-of-classroom tutoring, speech therapy, mentoring, and special behavior plans since his mother first identified concerns with his behavior as a 3-year-old when he was kicked out of a pre-kindergarten program for behaviors like running, kicking, and biting, the report says.
Evaluators identified developmental delays, speech impairments and, later, an emotional disability.
“It must be noted that in particular, [the student] seems to identify as an animal,” an evaluator noted when Cruz was 5-years-old. “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.... With high levels of reinforcement, the behaviors reduced, but his aggressive behaviors appeared to be unpredictable; thus, [positive behaviors] could not be constantly reinforced.”
With the help of enrollment in special education schools, Cruz made progress, even thriving academically at times, the report states, though periods of progress were often followed by some backtracking. Educators consistently noted problems with impulse control and forming relationships with peers.
Educators first noticed an “abrupt change in behavior” when Cruz was a student at Westglades Middle School, the report says. At that point, he was disciplined repeatedly for verbal disruptions and use of profanity. Later, he was put on “escort-only status,” which meant an aide was required to escort him throughout the building, including on trips to the restroom.
Cruz was later transferred to Cross Creek, a school for special education students that offered special supports.
After he began succeeding academically and achieving a 3.14 GPA, educators supported Cruz’s desire to transfer to Stoneman Douglas, taking a few classes there at first before attending full-time.
In September 2016, a classmate reported that Cruz “had spoken to her about depression and suicidal thoughts, and that he said he drank gasoline in an effort to hurt himself and had engaged in cutting behavior,” the report says.
The district then initiated a threat assessment process to determine what supports Cruz needed. The resulting plan prohibited Cruz from carrying a backpack and included a referral to an outside mental health agency. That agency determined it was not necessary to pursue a court-ordered psychiatric commitment. Stoneman Douglas’ on-site sheriff’s deputy, who was also legally qualified to request such a commitment, chose not to do so.
“Mother was called this morning and all the incidents were discussed,” the report says, quoting a comment on a school form. “Student is begging mom to get him a Florida ID so he can buy a gun. Mom thinks it is not a serious matter at all.”
Educators later recommended transferring Cruz back to Cross Creek. In an emotional meeting, he refused to do so and withdrew his consent for special education services.
Recommendations for Broward County Schools
The report recommends the district update its policies related to placement in special schools and when students or parents revoke consent for special education services, particularly when those students have special social and emotional needs.
Broward County schools released the document late Friday afternoon, saying it had used “a multi-disciplinary approach, including [exceptional student education] programming, school counseling/guidance and other related services in an effort to meet the ongoing and evolving needs of this student.”
“The District looks forward to the release of the full report as soon as it is legally appropriate,” Runcie said in a statement before the failed redactions were discovered. “We accept the recommendations regarding procedural improvements, and are pleased with the overall review, recommendations and findings. 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.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.