After Nikolas Cruz wrote the word “kill” in a notebook, the Broward school district conducted a threat assessment to see if he posed a danger to himself or others.
It’s a common procedure, with 388 threat assessments conducted from the start of the school year to mid-May, according to the district official in charge of the program.
“We … have been one of the few districts that had such a thorough, laid-out plan for threat assessment,” district official Mary Claire Mucenic said Tuesday to the state commission investigating the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “We’re happy that we’ve had this in place for a number of years.”
That evaluation prompted a bitter retort from Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was killed in the Feb. 14 massacre at the Parkland school.
“I would gauge your success based on how many children are in the cemetery right now,” he said. “I would not call this a success.”
It’s unclear why just a single threat assessment was done on Cruz, despite multiple instances of disturbing behavior. After the murders, students said publicly they told teachers or administrators about Cruz making threats or acting inappropriately, such as bringing dead animals to school or showing off bullets.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, said the Cruz threat assessment was conducted in late September 2016, just before Cruz turned 18. Then Cruz exercised his right as an adult to withdraw from special education services, he said.
Cruz “basically walked away,” and so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to engage him in follow up, Gualtieri said.
Asked in an interview if the assessment was done properly on Cruz, the chairman said: “We’re in the process of reviewing it now,” but said everything seemed to be done appropriately.
He said “there was action taken,” including an immediate referral to Henderson Behavioral Health’s youth emergency services team. Cruz was also evaluated for emergency psychiatric hospitalization, but Henderson counselors determined he did not qualify.
The district also put “restrictions” on Cruz, but the chairman would not elaborate.
Whether additional incidents involving Cruz rose to the level of requiring a threat assessment, he said, is “somewhat subjective.”
Mucenic said she could not confirm or comment on the number of assessments performed on Cruz because she did not have access to the records.
The commission will hold a closed-door session Thursday, where more details will be provided to commission members only.
District officials said federal privacy laws presented roadblocks to sharing information but said they welcomed changes that would allow more sharing with law enforcement and mental health providers.
If a family resists intervention efforts by the district “we really do not have any recourse for that,” Mucenic said. She said they work hard with parents and hope they’ll cooperate, but if they don’t agree, “then nothing would happen.”
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a member of the commission, said there should be consideration to strengthening the law to deal with students and families that refuse to cooperate.
“Quite frankly everyone has individual rights but your individual right doesn’t extend to harm me,” he said.
If the school system processes don’t have “the teeth” to protect the rights of the larger student population, Judd said, “then this commission I think can help you a lot.”
Currently there is a website and phone number anyone can call and students are informed about those options through a student “handbook.”
Schachter said there is no easy way now for children to report threats. “I think that is one of the problems. We should be working with the kids much much closer. And they’re not reading the handbook.”
In an interview, April Schentrup, whose daughter Carmen was killed in the shooting, said the current threat assessment system lacks accountability.
Schentrup, a school principal recently appointed to a position overseeing district safety and security, said the assessments are kept in separate files, apart from a student’s main educational record. “No one actually looks at it” unless asked, she said.
“We depend on the schools to ensure that a threat assessment is done,” she said. “But no one goes back to see if the threat assessment was done correctly.”