South Florida

School probe finds little fault with handling of Nikolas Cruz; his lawyers call it ‘whitewash’

FILE - In this April 27, 2018 file photo, Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, looks up while in court for a hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Attorneys for Cruz want a judge to prevent release of details of his education records to guarantee a fair trial. (Taimy Alvarez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)
FILE - In this April 27, 2018 file photo, Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, looks up while in court for a hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Attorneys for Cruz want a judge to prevent release of details of his education records to guarantee a fair trial. (Taimy Alvarez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool, File) AP

The Broward County School district did little wrong in how it handled a school shooter’s troubled years leading up to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, according to an investigation commissioned by the district itself.

The school district, acting with permission from a judge, released the generally uncritical report Friday on the history of shooter Nikolas Cruz. The report found some communication breakdowns between staff and an error in handling a request by Cruz to re-enter a special education program, but the precise details of Cruz’s years in the school system were heavily redacted by judicial order to comply with state privacy laws.

In a press release, the district hailed the report, saying the consulting firm found schools “provided significant and appropriate services” to Cruz.

“The district looks forward to the release of the full report as soon as it is legally appropriate,” said Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie. “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.”

The report was among documents sought as part of legal efforts by media organizations, including the Miami Herald, to piece together what led to the bloodshed. The district has also been ordered to release more surveillance videos that might show how police responded to the gunfire in those first terrifying minutes; prosecutors on Friday asked the Florida Supreme Court to order the footage be withheld because of the ongoing criminal probe.

Cruz’s own defense lawyers, hours before the report’s release, blasted the investigation by consulting firm Collaborative Educational Network. His lawyers insisted that it was “misinformation” and a “whitewash” produced to protect the district from accusations that it failed to act on Cruz’s behavior.

“This was a broken and damaged person from the get-go,” special assistant public defender David Frankel told a Broward criminal court judge, who declined to stop its release, noting that 24 pages of the report were redacted.

The district released its finding nearly six months after troubled former student Cruz, armed with an assault-style rifle, entered the freshman building on Feb. 14, killing 17 students and faculty members and injuring 17 others in the worst school shooting in Florida history. Lawyers for the surviving victims, and relatives of the dead, will have access to the full report.

The report cited only two “specific instances” in which educators did not “implement required procedures,” although details of those instances were blacked out. The report said that “with isolated exception, the district adhered to procedural and substantive requirements when implementing this student’s exceptional education program.”

The sections left unredacted suggest that Cruz rejected special education services at some point and then requested them again a few months later. When he did so, according to the report, the school district erred in its response. The unredacted sections of the report did not explain how.

The second instance involved a state requirement that a parent or adult student consent to the student’s placement in an alternative school. The circumstances are unclear.

The consulting firm made a series of recommendations about how the Broward school district trains its special education staff. One of the recommendations suggests there may have been a breakdown in communication between staff at an alternative school Cruz attended before he went to Stoneman Douglas and the staff at the Parkland school.

The report recommends the school district “establish a protocol for communicating with all relevant staff in a receiving school or program” when a student at a special education center transfers to a traditional school. That should include an intervention plan that guides staff on how to respond to the student’s behavior, the consulting firm said.

The consultants reviewed Cruz’s school records over nearly 16 years and conducted interviews with more than 30 teachers, administrators and special education specialists who came into contact with the troubled youth.

Much of Cruz’s history in the Broward school district had already been revealed by former teachers and classmates. Cruz, now 19, was known at Stoneman Douglas for his bizarre behavior, threats of violence and obsession with weapons and killing small animals. Despite his troubling behavior, Cruz was never arrested or committed to psychiatric care, although he was kicked out of Stoneman Douglas High.

He was also never expelled from the Broward school district. Although teachers and students said Cruz kicked doors, cursed at teachers, fought with classmates and brought a backpack with bullets to school, the Broward school district was legally unable to expel him.

Instead, Cruz bounced between schools, racking up a string of discipline infractions for profanity, disobedience, insubordination and disruption. School administrators transferred Cruz to an alternative school for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities in 2014, before allowing him to attend Stoneman Douglas two years later. Cruz was kicked out of Douglas a year later for disciplinary problems and went to three other alternative placements.

The teen gunman was captured within hours of the carnage and made a full confession to Broward homicide detectives. Prosecutors have also released chilling cellphone videos made by Cruz in which he detailed his plans to shoot up the school.

Cruz faces the death penalty if convicted, although a trial is likely years away. Soon after his arrest, the Broward Public Defender’s Office said Cruz would plead guilty if prosecutors agreed to waive the possibility of execution; the State Attorney’s Office is pressing forward with the death penalty.

Cruz’s lawyers have since sought to limit the flow of information, arguing that potential jurors in a future trial could be unfairly swayed.

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