MIAMI — Nikolas Cruz was an 18-year-old junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., when a spate of disturbing behavior led to a fateful meeting about the future of his schooling.
Education specialists told Mr. Cruz he should transfer to Cross Creek, an alternative school for students with emotional problems where he had thrived in ninth grade. His mother, Lynda Cruz, agreed.
But Mr. Cruz was legally an adult, and he wanted to graduate from Stoneman Douglas, according to a new report released late Friday by the Broward County Public Schools. A Cross Creek staffer gave him three options: transfer to the school, sue the school district, or stay at Stoneman Douglas — without any of the special-needs assistance he had relied on since he’d been found to be developmentally delayed at age 3.
The options, the school district’s new report found, were insufficient: Mr. Cruz by law and district policy should have been able to remain at Stoneman Douglas with special-needs protections. He didn’t know that but chose to stay anyway, no longer receiving any help or accommodations. It was Nov. 3, 2016.
On Feb. 8, 2017, Mr. Cruz’s failing grades forced him to withdraw from school. On Feb. 11, 2017, he legally bought an AR-15 assault rifle. It would be used a year later, almost to the day, when the authorities say he returned to Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14 and killed 17 students and staff members in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. Mr. Cruz, now 19, remains in jail awaiting trial on charges of capital murder.
The new details about Mr. Cruz’s educational record come from a consultant’s report commissioned by the Broward school district to review how it handled Mr. Cruz’s education. A judge ordered the release of the review, conducted by the Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee, over the objections of Mr. Cruz’s defense lawyers after several news organizations, including The New York Times, sued to make it public.
The report found little fault in the school district’s handling of Mr. Cruz’s special needs. Yet two key errors his junior year left Mr. Cruz without therapeutic services from the district for more than a year before the shooting and prevented him from returning to Cross Creek, the only high school where he had improved his behavior and found some academic success. They are the latest in a series of lapses by federal, state and local officials who came in contact with Mr. Cruz during his troubled teenage years but failed to take actions that might have prevented the shooting.
“We accept the recommendations regarding procedural improvements, and are pleased with the overall review, recommendations and findings,” Robert W. Runcie, the Broward schools superintendent, said in a statement on Friday. “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.”
Much of the educational report was redacted, as recommended by the school district and agreed to by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer to protect Mr. Cruz’s privacy. But the text of the blacked-out document could nevertheless be extracted, copied and pasted into another file so that it could be read in full. The content of the unredacted document was first reported by The Sun Sentinel of South Florida.
The report revealed that two months after Mr. Cruz was forced to leave Stoneman Douglas, he tried to take the school’s earlier advice and enroll in Cross Creek. His mother said “he had come to realize that the only way he would achieve his goal of graduating from high school” was to do so, the report says.
The district was required to respond to Mr. Cruz’s request for special-needs services, known as exceptional student education, within 30 days, the report found. Instead, the district told Mr. Cruz that it would need to evaluate his eligibility for assistance — despite his 15-year record in the school system — and that the process could take six weeks.
The process never began: For a new special-needs evaluation to take place, Mr. Cruz first had to re-enroll in Stoneman Douglas. An administrator said it was too late in the school year to take him back.
Mr. Cruz had done well at Stoneman Douglas when he began attending the school part-time as a sophomore, after attending Cross Creek as a freshman and for part of eighth grade, according to the report. By the middle of his sophomore year, Mr. Cruz was at Stoneman Douglas full-time. Mr. Cruz joined the Junior R.O.T.C., had a girlfriend and was suspended only once, for making “inappropriate comments,” the report says.
The report judged that the decision to move Mr. Cruz to Stoneman Douglas was “appropriate,” even though the school discontinued his behavior intervention plan, intended to inform all of Mr. Cruz’s educators about his problems and how to help him work on them.
Mr. Cruz had exhibited aggression starting in prekindergarten, according to the report. A psychological evaluation conducted when he was 5 described the young Mr. Cruz as “impulsive with no sense of boundary; thus, he acts out his fantasies, often explosively, in expressing his feelings of stress and anxiety.”
His behavior worsened in middle school. Security or school staff members were required to escort Mr. Cruz around campus, including to the restroom. Outbursts of profanity, disruptive behavior and pulling a false fire alarm resulted in suspensions and his expulsion from the school bus. In eighth grade, he was referred to a disciplinary program for breaking the handle on a bathroom faucet. Mr. Cruz never completed the program.
His junior year, Mr. Cruz appeared to have a breakdown. He cut himself, threatened to hurt others and claimed he had ingested gasoline in a possible suicide attempt. Stoneman Douglas officials considered trying to have Mr. Cruz involuntarily committed for a mental-health evaluation, though they ultimately did not. Their assessment of Mr. Cruz concluded with the recommendation that he return to Cross Creek — the offer he rejected.