At times, Nikolas Cruz’s behavior could be a school administrator’s nightmare: Teachers and other students said he kicked doors, cursed at teachers, fought with and threatened classmates and brought a backpack with bullets to school. He collected a string of discipline for profanity, disobedience, insubordination, and disruption.
In 2014, administrators transferred Cruz to an alternative school for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities — only to change course two years later and return him to a traditional neighborhood school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz was banished from Douglas a year later for other disciplinary violations — then toggled between three other alternative placements, school records obtained by the Miami Herald show.
If the frequent transfers — records show there were six in three years — did little to stanch Cruz’s disruptive behavior, they eventually became the only option left in the school district’s toolbox. Contrary to early reports, Cruz was never expelled from Broward schools. Legally, he couldn’t be.
Under federal law, Nikolas Cruz had a right to a “free and appropriate” education at a public school near him. His classmates had a right to an education free of fear.
Their rights often collided.
Long before Cruz carried an AR-15 assault rifle into Stoneman Douglas and carried out one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, the awkward, socially isolated youth puzzled, disrupted and sometimes terrified his schoolmates.
Broward County school administrators say they do all they can to offer a traditional education to youngsters whose mental illness or behavioral disorders leave them at risk for upheaval or violence, and provide therapeutic services to help them improve. School leaders are equally obligated, they say, to protect others around them.
“Every student is Broward County is entitled to a free and appropriate education. If there are certain areas where that can’t be done, we need to make sure those students are given a place that is the least restrictive environment for their ability and they can thrive,” said Broward School Board chair Nora Rupert. “You also want everybody to have safety.”
Expelling Cruz from the Broward school system altogether was never an option, and what little is known of the teen’s educational history illustrates the sharp limitations that confront school administrators who must deal with profoundly troubled students.
“You can’t just kick kids out of the public schools because you are afraid of them, or because they are hard to educate,” said Stephanie Langer, a Miami special education lawyer and advocate. “It has to be a balance, and I think it’s a really hard one.”
Since the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first law that articulated a federal role in enforcing the rights of disabled people, the laws surrounding the education of children with special needs have evolved. In general, school districts are required to provide kids with physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities a free education in the “least restrictive” setting, and to accommodate the needs of such students.
Defining the word “accommodate” has kept judges busy for decades.
The tension between schools and parents has created a cottage industry for lawyers and advocates. For the budget year 2017, the state Division of Administrative Hearings docketed 244 appeals of Florida school board decisions, with the largest number of them being filed in South Florida. The Broward County School Board defended 38 appeals, the most in the state, followed by Miami-Dade with 37, DOAH reported last month.
Broward School Board member Robin Bartleman has been forced to ponder the conflict between troubled students and their sometimes-vulnerable peers intensively in recent days.
“I’ve been to five funerals already,” Bartleman said Monday, adding that it’s been difficult to spend time with her own family. “I’m watching parents bury their children. It is the worst thing I have ever seen.”
In the aftermath, school leaders are examining every aspect of the tragedy, including what role they can play in passing “common sense gun laws,” Bartleman said. “As a district, we’re going to look at everything. We know that mental health is a huge need in this country. We, as a district, recognize that, before children can even worry about tests or learn, they need to be mentally healthy.”
“This is about getting children the services they need,” Bartleman said. “That’s been a goal of this district.”
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie wouldn’t discuss Cruz’s school records, citing a federal law that protects student privacy, but said he didn’t think providing Cruz with more school services would have prevented the shooting.
“Based on what’s reported in the media, here’s a kid who’s lost both parents, he’s obviously got some mental health challenges,” Runcie said. “Let me just say if we provided every service that we could and did all that in exemplary fashion, if he can still get access to guns what’s the point of all this?”
“This is a systemic problem we have that isn’t about blaming one agency or the other,” he added. “What we need to do is move from trying to play the blame game and find real solutions.”
Absent Cruz’s school records, it is hard to say precisely when Cruz’s behavior became an acute problem for teachers and administrators. Disciplinary reports obtained by the Herald show that at Westglades Middle School, which he attended in 2013, he’d been cited numerous times for disrupting class, unruly behavior, insulting or profane language, profanity toward staff, disobedience and other rules violations.
Records show the behaviors continued at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, which he attended in 2016 and 2017 before being transferred, with discipline being dispensed for fighting, profanity, and an “assault.” It appears the Jan. 19, 2017 assault resulted in a referral for a “threat assessment.” A few months later, Cruz landed at an Off Campus Learning Center, where he remained for only about five months.
At Westglades, Cruz was disruptive and would sometimes make “disturbing comments,” said former classmate Christopher Guerra.
While the other students waited in the hallway for their eighth-grade science teacher to let them into the classroom, Cruz would sometimes bang and kick the door, Guerra said. He would yell profanities at the teacher, telling her to “Open up the f-----g door!”
The teacher sometimes had to call security to let Cruz into the classroom and to keep an eye on him during class, Guerra said. Once, during a Westglades class party, Cruz asked a teacher if he could have the leftover ice cream, according to what Guerra told his mother at the time. The teacher gave Cruz the ice cream tub, but told him not to do anything bad with it.
“As soon as the bell rang, he just threw it everywhere,” said Jenny Carbo, Guerra’s mother, recounting the story her son told her in eighth grade. One of her friend’s children came home that afternoon with his clothes full of ice cream stains, Carbo said.
“What surprises me is that this was a child who was ignored,” Carbo said. “He was crying out for help.”
From Westglades, Cruz was transferred to Cross Creek School, a K-12 program with intensive programming for kids with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Retired Broward teacher Joe Carrier taught a woodworking class at Cross Creek while Cruz attended the school, and remembers Cruz as “a quiet kid” who kept to himself and appeared to be “mildly autistic.”
“He was odd but he never showed any sign of aggression,” Carrier said. Cruz never had fights with other students in Carrier’s class and never discussed his life outside of school with the teacher. “He was really withdrawn,” Carrier said.
At Cross Creek, students always have access to counselors and can ask for “time outs” during the day if they feel frustrated or upset, Carrier said. A student who needs a break from class can visit his or her counselor or take a walk outside with a teacher’s aid to “de-stress.” Carrier said he doesn’t recall Cruz asking to see a counselor during his class and said that if he did, it wasn’t a frequent occurrence.
“Nikolas was a very odd child and we never really pushed him academically at Cross Creek to where he would face frustration or kids were belittling him,” Carrier said. That may have changed when Cruz got to Stoneman Douglas, where former classmates said he was bullied.
While students at Cross Creek receive regular counseling and the school is prepared to handle emotional outbursts, Carrier added, the lack of support at a regular school can be difficult for children with behavioral issues.
“It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t have looked at this child a little more closely before transitioning him to Stoneman Douglas,” Carrier added.
At Douglas High, Cruz’s outbursts and penchant for weapons were well-known among students and staff. Several students have confirmed they reported his stalking and violent threats to school staff, but it was never enough to get him arrested.
Guerra, Cruz’s middle school classmate, would occasionally run into Cruz between classes at Stoneman Douglas and at the Dollar Tree, where Cruz worked as a cashier.
Cruz sometimes asked Guerra about Stoneman Douglas while he rang up his purchases at the store, and told Guerra he hated the school, Guerra said. Cruz also talked about guns, and about how he wanted to buy an AR-15.
Once, about two years ago, Guerra and a friend stopped at the Dollar Tree on their way to a movie theater and Cruz said something particularly troubling when he asked them about the high school. “I’m going to go there and shoot it up,” he said, according to Guerra. Then he told Guerra and his friend not to worry, that they would be safe because they had always been nice to him, Guerra said.
When Guerra and his friend asked Cruz what he was talking about, Cruz said he was kidding. They didn’t think he was serious, Guerra said, but the comments still stuck with them.
“He wasn’t a mean kid in the sense that he would try and be hurtful to people,” Guerra said. “He was just a kid that I feel was looking for a friend and no one was there for him in a time that was rough for him.”
Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle contributed to this report.