by Karen R. Effrem, MD
A heavily redacted report was released in recent days reviewing the Broward County Public Schools’ (BCPS) handling of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter under federal and state special education law. Although the report does shed some light on the events which led to the killing of 17 people this past February, it raises many more questions than it answers.
Before asking some of those important questions, however, here is some background and a brief timeline review. The pertinent federal law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), under which the shooter was educated almost all of his life. Available evidence from media and other sources shows that the perpetrator was suspended for a total of “at least 67 days over less than a year and a half at Westglades Middle School.” After spending some time at Cross Creek School, a school for emotionally disturbed students, he was then, presumably under his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) under IDEA, sent to attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for part of his junior year (2016-17 school year) to allow him to be educated in “the least restrictive environment.”
During September 2017, he attempted suicide after a break-up with a girlfriend, which was investigated by a mobile crisis unit of the Henderson Behavioral Health Center and the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Both declined to exercise their option to involuntarily hospitalize him for further examination and treatment under Florida’s Baker Act. DCF said that the “final level of risk was low,” because, according to the New York Times review of the DCF report, “his mother was caring for him, he was enrolled in school and he was receiving counseling.”
The school counselor at BCPS expressed concerns to DCF that Henderson’s assessment may have been premature. This suicide attempt occurred around the same time the perpetrator had made death threats (a Class 3 Felony) to friends of his former girlfriend over social media. The victims reported these threats to Scott Peterson, the BCPS School Resource Officer, and Kevin Greenleaf, a school security specialist. Nothing was done except to email teachers warning them to prohibit the shooter from bringing a backpack to school. This should have triggered a threat assessment that according to the criteria in the BCPS threat assessment manual would have fit the criteria for a medium to high threat level and required law enforcement involvement for either arrest or involuntary commitment under the Baker Act. In fact, threats or intimidation, according to the FLDOE in the state level school safety commission are “expected to include consultation with law enforcement.” A Baker Act examination history either for the suicide attempt or the threats would have prevented him from being legally able to purchase the AR-15 used in the attack.
He was finally referred for a threat assessment in January 2017, but apparently for other issues than the death threats. He was reported by some students to have brought knives to school (a Class 3 felony) and by others to have been carrying bullets in his backpack. Though the reasons were not clarified either by Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel at the time of the shooting or in this latest report, he was expelled in February 2017, three months after his mother died. He purchased the AR-15 rifle a few days later.
What the consultant report did explain was that at the time of his expulsion, the shooter was presented with the option of continuing to receive special education services that included returning to the Cross Creek alternative school, but he refused. Because he had turned 18 in September 2016, the consent decision for IDEA services was in his hands. And since he was no longer accepting services, he was subject to the same code of conduct that he had violated, resulting in his expulsion.
This was where the report was critical of the perpetrator’s handling by BCPS under IDEA and Florida law. According to the Sun-Sentinel, school officials misstated his options when he was faced with being removed from the high school his junior year, leading him to refuse special education services. And when he asked to resume special education services by returning to Cross Creek, the district “did not follow through.”
However, one of the most significant questions not answered by the report is why the reported felonious death threats made against fellow students by the Parkland shooter were ignored by school officials and the School Resource Officer. The viewable portions of the report say nothing about these threats. According to IDEA cited in the report (p. 16), suspensions are not to be made for more than ten days that reflect a change in placements from the IEP if it is felt that the student’s behavior is related to his disability. However:
An exception is made if the violation involves weapons, drugs, or serious bodily injury, in which case the student can be removed to an alternative setting for up to 45 days.
So even under IDEA, those felonious threats should have been further assessed and reported — as also with the PROMISE program to which he was referred in middle school, despite contrary statements by the district. However, detailed analysis by Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute and Jane Robbins and Erin Tuttle of the American Principles Project, as well as local reporting, are all showing that various federal bribes (like the PROMISE grants) and threats (like the Obama-era school discipline policy to prevent race- and disability-based disparities in suspensions, expulsions, and arrests) combined to create a “culture of tolerance” for increasingly dangerous criminal acts. Both teachers and law enforcement described losing discretion and the ability to maintain safety.
The other major question not answered by the redacted report is what medications he was on and when, in relation to the disorders underlying his emotional disability. The New York Times report of his DCF evaluation discussed above also mentioned:
In addition to depression, Mr. Cruz had autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, the report said. He was regularly taking medication for the A.D.H.D. It was unclear whether he was taking anything for the depression, according to the report.
That the Parkland shooter was deeply disturbed is beyond doubt, as documented by newly released interrogation/confession video describing how he felt driven by “demons in his head” to “Kill. Burn. Destroy.” It is also clear that this perpetrator and the BCPS community were failed in many ways that ultimately led to the deaths of 17 people. To prevent future tragedies, while still maintaining our liberties and privacy, these difficult questions and more must be honestly answered.