New disclosures about the educational experiences of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz should inform efforts to improve school safety and prevent mass shootings.
As educators and policymakers explore ways to improve school safety and prevent mass shootings, they should consider recent disclosures about the February massacre of 17 students in Florida.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper recently published an extraordinary report documenting how killer Nikolas Cruz fell through the cracks of his school’s special-education program 14 months before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Cruz was long known to have behavioral problems. Yet his therapeutic services were halted when he turned 18, leaving him to founder in a mainstream setting. A consultant’s report obtained by the paper said the district misinformed Cruz of his options when he turned 18 and chose to end the services. The district also fumbled his subsequent request to be returned to a special-needs school where he had performed better.
It’s unknown whether services could have prevented the attack by Cruz. But the disclosures provide important lessons for those working to improve school safety, including a mass-shooting task force that was created by Washington’s Legislature after the Florida shooting and a school-safety advisory committee started in 2001.
One lesson is that in addition to mitigating risks of gun violence and preparing for incidents, schools also need to address any shortcomings in how they assess and support students with behavioral health issues.
Revelations of errors made with Cruz are a nightmare scenario for educators working in a complex, imperfect and often underfunded system. Mistakes happen, staffing and resources vary by location and there aren’t consistent methods for sharing knowledge about students when they move to different schools.
Some students also receive a different level of services because they have strong advocates, such as family members with resources and ability to navigate the system.
Beyond schools, there’s also a shortage of capacity in Washington’s mental-health system, particularly for youth living in places other than Seattle.
As part of ongoing efforts to improve school safety, Washington is now building capacity for assessing whether students pose a threat, using an intervention model developed in Oregon, according to Martin Mueller, state assistant superintendent of public instruction. That will require additional funding to propagate across 295 school districts, which also are counting on the state to increase special-education funding in 2019. Then there’s a question of whether the state’s funding formula provides enough counselors.
Reporting on Cruz suggests that school-safety task forces should also look to improve the way schools retain and share information about students who potentially pose a threat. There isn’t clear guidance or a consistent system, according to Shannon McMinimee, a Seattle education lawyer and former school administrator who recalls making calls to inform schools where particular students were transferring.
The terrible truth is that additional school shootings will happen. Multiple steps must be taken to reduce their likelihood and severity. That includes reasonable gun control and improvements to school safety programs. It also demands improvements and new investments in how schools assess and support students with behavioral health issues.