PARKLAND, Fla. — Teachers and counselors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School hoped a transfer to an alternative school would provide mental health services for Nikolas Cruz after his behavior and discipline problems increased in 2016.
Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said Cruz’s situation at Stoneman Douglas had deteriorated so much so that his counselors and teachers decided to refer him out of the school in early 2017. They hoped he would return to Cross Creek School, an alternative program with smaller classes and a more comprehensive offering of mental health services.
“He declined,” Runcie said. “When a kid turns 18, we can’t force an adult to receive those services.”
The school’s faculty returned Monday to Stoneman Douglas for the first time since the Valentine’s Day shooting that killed 17 students and staff and injured 14 others. Students will return to class Wednesday.
Cruz has admitted to the shooting. His lawyers are arguing that the missed opportunities for intervention after reports of violence and threats documented by police, social workers and school counselors should spare him a death sentence.
Stoneman Douglas teachers and counselors became concerned about Cruz in late 2016, Runcie said.
Photos: Stoneman Douglas staff return to school for planning days
In September of that year, a student told police that Cruz, depressed and cutting himself, had ingested gasoline in an attempt to kill himself at the high school. The student said that Cruz wanted to buy a gun for hunting and had drawn a swastika on his backpack next to a phrase including the N-word.
Counselors from Henderson Behavioral Services, which had sent a mobile crisis team to the school in 2016, advised police that Cruz “was not a risk to harm himself or anyone else” because he was on a treatment plan for ADHD, depression, OCD and autism, according to police and social worker reports.
His medication, counseling and attentive mother had given him stability, the therapist said.
It was one of at least two times Henderson clinicians advised police against involuntary hospitalization — the other during a house call in 2013 after Cruz threw his mother against the wall for taking away his video games, according to records from the Sheriff’s Office and Florida's Department of Children and Families.
A school counselor had told DCF investigators that she expressed concerns that Henderson's assessment may be premature. DCF closed the file six weeks later.
Runcie said in an interview that those educators who knew Cruz at Stoneman Douglas believed the referral to Cross Creek would be a positive influence on him. Cruz’s disciplinary records obtained by USA TODAY NETWORK - FLORIDA show no problems reported while he attended Cross Creek from early 2014 through 2015.
Photos: Students march towards state capitol, fight for gun control
The year before, then-14-year-old Cruz had 29 incidents in Westglades Middle School, ranging from fights to disruptive and unruly behavior.
After turning down the referral to Cross Creek, Cruz enrolled in “off-campus learning centers” at Henry D. Perry Education Center and Rock Island Professional Development Center, alternative programs for students to make up credits but without mental health services.
In November 2017, after Lynda Cruz died and while Cruz’s younger brother Zachary was living under the care of family friend Rocxanne Deschamps, a school social worker called police after Zachary Cruz stopped attending classes at Stoneman Douglas to request a welfare check for possible neglect. The caller was “concerned that legal guardianship was never filed,” according to the dispatcher’s notes.
Sharon Langer, a lawyer and development director of the Disability Independence Group, says “incapacitating” a vulnerable adult — taking away their right to decline treatment on their own — requires a high threshold typically reserved for extreme cases.
“Somebody has to be really, really incompetent,” Langer said. “You can’t just take people and lock them away.”
Critics of Florida's current gun laws point out that access to high-powered rifles, including for those with mental health issues who commit relatively low levels of gun violence, is the underlying problem.
Executives and doctors at Henderson, where Cruz is last known to have received counseling up until 2017, declined to discuss when his treatment stopped or if clinicians handed him off to another facility after he left the school system.
Henderson is the largest mental health provider in the county and has received almost $50 million in state contracts since 2007, according to data from the Florida Department of Financial Services. In 2016 the center received a nearly $22 million grant to keep people from being inappropriately hospitalized or jailed.
Henderson Behavioral, which also provides private mental health care, offers services ranging from crisis intervention to longer-term mental health care, like outpatient and in home therapy, according to its website. Among the services it provides: therapy for families referred by law enforcement due to concerns of possible abuse or neglect, and treatment for youth who are at risk of removal from home due to behavioral health issues.
Prosecutors have requested court orders to obtain mental health treatment records for Cruz from Jerome Golden Center and South County Mental Health Center, in addition to records related to Cruz’s treatment from Broward Health.
After Cruz’s mother died in November 2017, he spent a brief but tumultuous time at a family friend’s trailer in Lake Worth. Then he moved in with the Sneads, a Parkland family who say they didn’t know how serious his mental health problems were. James Snead said Cruz was not taking medication or seeing a counselor while living with them — right up until Valentine’s Day.
“When his mother passed, he was very depressed,” Snead said, noting that Cruz didn’t know how to use a microwave, do laundry or pick up after himself. "He relied on her for everything.”
The Henderson counselors who had earlier advised DCF investigators that he was on a treatment plan were no longer in the picture.
There is no standard system in place to follow up after a crisis or coordinate between agencies, said Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, a leading expert on mental health-related crimes.
"This is never one person's, one party’s or one institution’s fault,” Leifman said, noting that communication breakdowns are common across the state. “We’ve learned the hard way."