Nikolas Cruz was determined to burn Valentine’s Day 2018 into memory. After a ride-sharing service deposited him on the campus of the Parkland, Florida, high school from which he had been expelled, authorities said, the 19-year-old entered a stairwell, uncased his semi-automatic rifle and proceeded to unleash hell upon the students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz, who apparently left the scene after blending into the crowd of panicked former classmates to get past responding police, was later arrested and charged with conducting the attack that killed 17 teenagers and adults and injured at least 15 more.
As the details of Cruz's life have emerged after the shooting, it has become clear that ample warning signs had emerged indicating that he was troubled and posed a threat. But no authority put those clues together, and the result was another school shooting that most likely could have been prevented. Cruz had twice been reported to the FBI over concerns that he was a potential school shooter. About a month before the shootings, the FBI said, a person called an agency number with "information about Cruz's gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting." This specific threat warning indicated that Cruz had both the intent and capability to conduct a school shooting, and yet the FBI did not pass the information along either to its Miami field office or to local law enforcement authorities.
In September 2017, a blogger contacted the FBI after a person using the screen name "Nikolas Cruz" posted a comment stating that "Im (sic) going to be a professional school shooter." The FBI was unable to specifically identify the poster.
But the FBI is not the only organization that missed significant clues. Reports indicate that Cruz's neighbors had repeatedly called the Broward County Sheriff's Office to report his behavior. He had also been expelled from school for fighting with his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend and was found to have ammunition in his backpack when it was searched after the fight. Students also reported that Cruz frequently brought knives to school and attempted to sell them.
Furthermore, the (Florida) Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported that during a social media livestream in September 2016, Cruz had cut his arms in an apparent suicide attempt. The incident reportedly prompted the sheriff’s department and the Florida Department of Children and Families to open an investigation, which concluded that although Cruz was clearly troubled and expressed a desire to buy a gun, he posed a "low risk" because he lived with his mother, attended school and was receiving mental health counseling. In the months after that assessment, however, Cruz's mother died, he was expelled from school, and he bought a gun. It is unclear whether he remained in mental health counseling, but clearly his situation had deteriorated in the time between the investigation and the shooting.
Even on the day of the attack, it does not appear as if the ride service's driver thought to report to the police that he had dropped off a passenger with a rifle case outside a high school. Despite the many warning signs of a pending attack, Cruz slipped through the cracks, and this case became the latest in a long list of school shootings — 136 of them since the 1999 attack at Colorado's Columbine High School, including 25 incidents of gun violence associated with gang activity.
Understanding the Threat
In the wake of the April 1999 Columbine massacre, a watershed moment for school shootings in the United States, the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education undertook a comprehensive study of the problem of school shootings, beginning a project that became known as the Safe School Initiative. The report on the study's findings, published in 2004, contained the following key points:
- Violence targeting schools was rarely the result of a sudden or impulsive act.
- Before most incidents, other people knew about the attacker's desire to attack.
- There is no accurate or useful "profile" of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
- Before an incident, most attackers had exhibited behavior that caused concern or indicated a need for help.
- Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
- Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others.
- Most attackers had both prior experience with and access to weapons.
In light of these findings, the report recommended that educators, law enforcement officials and others consider focusing on strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas:
- "Developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack."
- "Employing the results of these risk evaluations or 'threat assessments' in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring."
The Safe School Initiative found many school attacks to be preventable, but despite this, as the Cruz case illustrates, even when there is ample warning that a troubled student may be planning a school shooting, there is no well-defined, nationwide clearinghouse for collecting the tips and warnings or way to ensure that the proper risk and threat assessments are conducted.
Certainly, in some cases warnings have led to arrests that may well have prevented school shootings. A Feb. 13 report from Everett, Washington, said that authorities, who were acting on a grandmother's tip about a disturbing journal she had found, arrested an 18-year-old student on charges that he had planned a school shooting-and-bombing attack. The day after Cruz's shooting rampage, a student in Spartanburg, South Carolina, was arrested after his parents reported that he had made a social media post threatening to conduct a copycat attack — the student called the post an attempt at a joke. But despite the actions taken in these and other cases, some warning signs are simply missed, with deadly results.
One reason is that for the FBI, local police departments and other law enforcement agencies, the handling of reports about potential school shooters is just one of the many tasks they are assigned to cover, rather than a primary concern. In some cases, local police departments lack the training to conduct proper threat assessments or the attention span and personnel to follow up on subjects like Cruz, who are assessed as low risk but then deteriorate.
A Suggested Solution
This situation reminds me of the attitude that used to prevail toward criminals who preyed on children. Everyone agreed that such crimes were a terrible problem, but they were just some of the many problems facing law enforcement agencies. There was no central organization to focus on the issue. This changed after the murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who had been kidnapped from a Florida department store in 1981. After Adam's death, his father, John, worked tirelessly to help create the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984.
In the years since, the center has become the nation's clearinghouse for all issues related to child victimization. Its staff of trained professionals fields telephone calls and online tips, conducts assessments, offers training and even provides a wide array of specialized investigative support to local police departments, including analytical, technical and forensic assistance.
I am straying outside of my regular analytical lane a bit here, but I am extremely frustrated that we continue to witness tragedies that could have been prevented if only someone had owned the problem and followed through to ensure that threats were assessed and mitigated. The Safe School Initiative provides a great framework for understanding and addressing the issue, but no organization exists to implement it.
It has become quite clear that the United States needs a national institution in the same vein as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but focused only on preventing school violence. Such a center, staffed by a team of trained cross-functional specialists, could receive tips, share intelligence and help local authorities to conduct risk and threat assessments for potential school shooters, and to train educators and law enforcement. School safety would be its primary mission and not some second- or third-tier concern.
After each school shooting over the past two decades, a well-established pattern has emerged: People become angry and outraged, but then the issue gets bogged down in political fights over policy, and then no progress is made toward fixing the problem. Then the next tragedy starts the cycle again. If there's any hope of breaking this pattern, action must be taken to establish an organization dedicated to keeping our children safe.