When Nikolas Cruz turned 18, he refused to let the school district continue providing him with crucial mental health and other services — and there was nothing officials could do about it, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said Monday.
Federal law tied their hands, he said, and also prevented them from forcing Cruz to attend a school for special needs students.
Once Cruz was considered an adult, he could stay at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, even though a team of specialists recommended in November 2016 that he be placed in a school for students with emotional and behavioral students, Runcie said.
“You can’t make someone do something when the law says they have the right to make that determination,” Runcie said.
Even if the school believed he posed a danger to others, they couldn’t remove him based on what he did previously, experts say. As a special needs student, Cruz had certain federal protections. When he gave them up, the school still had to wait for a new reason to transfer him to an alternative school or to expel him.
The district’s inability to remove a clearly troubled student is the latest in a series of problems that have come to light since Cruz, 19, killed 17 people and wounded 16 at the Parkland school on Feb. 14.
In a wide-ranging interview Monday, Runcie also said:
— About nine or 10 Stoneman Douglas students out of 3,300 and five teachers out of 215 have asked about possibly transferring to another school. He said he would accommodate them.
— Cruz was not part of the district’ PROMISE program, in which students committing minor crimes can avoid going to jail.
— The district plans to conduct an internal review of how it handled the Stoneman Douglas mass shooting, in addition to a review called by Gov. Rick Scott.
— Runcie plans to look into metal detectors, bullet-proof glass and other safety enhancements but no decisions have been made yet.
As a youth, Cruz was considered a special needs student and had an educational plan tailored to help him succeed. Although Runcie wouldn’t discuss specifics, typical services for such a student include sessions with licensed therapists, ongoing assessments of behavior, and accommodations such as extra time on tests, experts say.
When Cruz was in the eighth grade, he was required to transfer from Westglades Middle in Parkland to Cross Creek School in Pompano Beach, which offers a program for emotionally and behaviorally disabled children of all ages.
He didn’t want to be there but stayed through January as a 10th-grader.
“Nikolas’ personal goal is to (be) mainstreamed to his home high school,” according to a Broward school system report from June 2015, the end of his ninth-grade year. “He often perseverates on the idea that his current school is for students that are ‘not smart’ and that he can now handle being in ‘regular’ school.”
The district decided in January 2016 to allow him to spend half his day at Cross Creek and half at Stoneman Douglas, as a way of easing him into the larger and less structured school environment.
“The transition period went from January to June, and seemed to have a satisfactory outcome,” Runcie said. “My understanding is it went well.”
Runcie said he wasn’t aware of a February 2016 report to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, claiming Cruz threatened on Instagram “to shoot up the school.”
The posting included a photo of a juvenile with a gun, but it’s unclear from a BSO report whether Cruz was the student in the photo, and why it wasn’t investigated further. Sheriff Scott Israel said he is investigating the deputy who responded to this call.
A report said the deputy determined Cruz possessed knives and a BB gun and that information was forwarded to School Resource Officer Scot Peterson, who worked for the Sheriff’s Office. Runcie said he didn’t know whether Peterson shared that information with the school district, and if it was shared, whether that would be serious enough to remove Cruz from school.
“Knives and a BB gun at home. That’s different than somebody that has an assault weapon and a cache of ammunition and firearms,” Runcie said.
Cruz became a full-time student at Stoneman Douglas in August, but by November “the situation had deteriorated. There were a lot of incidents,” Runcie said, declining to be more specific.
“The decision was made to refer him back to Cross Creek. It seemed to be a better environment,” he said.
But Cruz had turned 18 two months earlier and refused to go to Cross Creek. And, with his mother’s support, he chose to revoke the services provided as a special needs student, Runcie said.
The district is not allowed to provide those special services once students revoke their rights, said Wendy Bellack, executive director of the Broward County chapter of the Family Network on Disabilities, an advocacy organization for parents of special needs students.
“It would basically be illegal for them to provide those services without consent,” she said.
It wouldn’t matter if some staff members had concerns about him staying there, Runcie said.
When Cruz was a special needs student, expulsion wasn’t an option. As a regular student, there would have to be a new incident for him to be removed, Runcie said.
Stoneman Douglas finally decided to remove Cruz after unspecified behavior problems in February 2017. He was told his only option was an alternative school. Runcie said.
Cruz attended alternative schools sporadically until the shooting.
Runcie said he’d like to see the age raised to 21 for students to be able to refuse services.
“The Legislature has just proposed raising the legal age by which you could purchase firearms to 21. Maybe 21 should also be the age they can refuse services,” he said.
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