When Nikolas Cruz turned 18, Broward Schools had to figure out what to do with a troubled student who could legally refuse help.

Their solution was to move Cruz, who was diagnosed with an emotional and behavioral disorder, from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland to a dropout prevention program where he took classes on computer with little interaction with teachers and mental health professionals.

That decision has come under fire by some special education experts who say the district shirked its responsibility to assist a student who was still under their care. On Feb. 14, a year after Cruz was kicked out of Stoneman Douglas, he returned to the school and killed 17 people in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.

“They can’t just wash their hands. They need to keep an eye on the situation,” said Mark Kamleiter, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represents families of special needs children. “If he’s a danger to himself or others, they obviously have to do something.”

That could mean giving him psychiatric help under the Baker Act, offering regular access to counseling, allowing him to stay at Stoneman Douglas but trying to improve his behavior, or trying to persuade him to attend a school that’s suited for him.

Still, some say the school district’s ability to serve an adult student who is unwilling to receive help is limited.

“When you’ve got a kid that’s 18 and the school district offers him services and the kid refuses, your hands are tied,” said Pete Wright, a Virginia lawyer who specializes in federal law related to special education.

But Wright said the school district probably missed warnings when Cruz was much younger. Records show he was disciplined numerous times at Westglades Middle in Parkland for unruly and disruptive behavior, and neighbors described him bullying his brother, stealing and being abusive toward animals in elementary school.

“This didn’t suddenly happen just because he reached a certain age,” Wright said. “This type of thing shows itself for many, many years. The seeds are there, the signs are there in the second, third, fourth grade that he’s depressed or having aggressive behavior. Unless the pattern is reversed, there can be horrible complications in the future.”

For part of middle and high school, Cruz attended Cross Creek School in Pompano Beach, which specializes in students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. He was allowed to attend his neighborhood school, Stoneman Douglas, for two periods a day in August 2015 and then started attending Stoneman Douglas full time in January 2016. Once at Stoneman Douglas, he was disciplined for fighting, using profanity against school staff on three occasions and an assault, according to his discipline records.

In November 2016, the school district recommended returning him to Cross Creek. Cruz didn’t want to go back there and to avoid being placed there, he revoked his rights to special education services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

“You can’t make someone do something when the law says they have the right to make that determination,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said.

The district initially let him stay at Stoneman Douglas. It was difficult to expel him while he was receiving special education services, which contain certain protections from the federal government. But once he became a general education student, the district could treat him like any other, but had to wait for a new reason to move him, experts said. That happened Jan. 19, 2017, when he was disciplined for assault. About three weeks later, he was moved to the credit recovery program — where students often take online courses in a storefront building.

District officials said they felt this was a better option than his being expelled from the district, and they said Cruz agreed to it.

“We found a place for him to be educated,” said Valerie Wanza, a district administrator.

But experts say the district had a moral obligation to do more to help Cruz and protect the safety of students.

“What they did was move the problem to another setting,” said Ann Siegel, a lawyer and director for special education advocacy for Disability Rights Florida. “I hear a lot, ‘We offered help. He chose not take it.’ You know he needs services. You have to work at motivating him. You need to do everything you can to help him. Sending him to a course recovery program is not doing everything you can.”

Siegel said credit recovery programs work well for students who don’t like being at a regular “brick and mortar” school. But she said Cruz wanted to stay in a regular high school.

Had Cruz not revoked his special education services, he could have challenged the recommended transfer to Cross Creek in a “due process” hearing and possibly stayed at Stoneman Douglas, Wright said. A judge or hearing officer would then decide what school he should attend and what safeguards would be in place to protect his safety and others. But he lost that ability once he revoked the services, Wright said.

Experts say many schools are poorly trained at dealing with students with behavioral disabilities and mental illnesses, and they often focus more on disciplining students than providing them help.

“It’s just sad,” said Wendy Ballack, executive director of the Broward County chapter of the Family Network on Disabilities. “He fell through the cracks.”