On the day an 11th-grader named Nikolas Cruz told another student that he had a gun at home and was thinking of using it, two guidance counsellors and a sheriff’s deputy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland concluded that he should be forcibly committed for psychiatric evaluation, according to mental health records obtained on Sunday by The New York Times.
An involuntary commitment of that kind, under the authority of a Florida state law known as the Baker Act, could have kept Cruz from passing a background check required to buy a firearm.
But Cruz appears never to have been institutionalised despite making threats to himself and others, cutting his arms with a pencil sharpener and claiming he had drunk gasoline in a possible attempt to kill himself, all in a five-day period in September 2016.
The revelation that school officials considered trying to commit Cruz under the Baker Act in 2016 appeared to be another in a string of missed opportunities to deal with the troubled young man. Police say he went on to commit one of the deadliest school massacres in US history last month, killing 17 people and wounding 17 more using a gun he bought legally.
A Florida social services agency investigated Cruz after it was alerted about the same disturbing behaviour in 2016, but it determined he was at low risk of harming himself or others. Local sheriffs’ deputies were repeatedly called to Cruz’s residences but never found reason enough to arrest him. And the FBI failed to investigate tips about Cruz’s apparent interest in shooting up a school, even after a woman called to say Cruz had weapons and was “going to explode”.
At the time when school officials said they would initiate Baker Act commitment proceedings against Cruz, he apparently did not own any weapon other than a pellet gun. But five months later, after being kicked out of Stoneman Douglas High, he legally purchased the semi-automatic AR-15 rifle he used to open fire in the school’s freshman building.
The mental health records, first reported by The Sun Sentinel of South Florida and the Associated Press, form part of the criminal case against Cruz, 19, who has been charged with murder and attempted murder in a 34-count indictment. Prosecutors have said they would seek the death penalty if he is convicted.
The records are from Henderson Behavioral Health, a local clinic that school officials called for help for dealing with Cruz. The clinic sent a mobile assistance team to Stoneman Douglas High on 28 September 2016 the records show, because Cruz had made threats and exhibited disturbing behaviour after a breakup with a girlfriend. Cruz was also said to be upset that his mother, Lynda Cruz, would not let him get an identification card required to buy a gun.
Cruz denied telling another student that he wanted to use a gun or that he had ingested gasoline, the documents say.
Five days earlier, on 23 September, Ms Cruz had summoned a different Henderson clinician to her home because Cruz was verbally aggressive and “punching holes in the wall”.
The clinician who wrote the 28 September report concluded that Nikolas Cruz “did not meet criteria for further assessment”. The sheriff’s deputy at the school, Scot Peterson, told a clinician that he wanted to initiate a Baker Act request against Cruz anyway, the records show and two school counsellors agreed. Mr Peterson also said he would search Cruz’s home for a gun.
But Mr Peterson apparently changed his mind about the commitment request the next day. One of the guidance counsellors told the Henderson clinic that the deputy had decided Cruz did not fit the criteria for involuntary commitment. Clinicians had repeatedly concluded that the Baker Act would not justify committing Cruz because he denied having an intent or a plan to hurt himself or others.
Mr Peterson was still serving as the school resource officer at Stoneman Douglas High when Cruz carried out his deadly rampage. Surveillance video showed that the deputy remained outside the freshman building during the shooting and did not try to confront Cruz, in apparent violation of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office policy for dealing with active shooters. Mr Peterson resigned and retired after Sheriff Scott Israel placed him under internal investigation.
An attorney for Mr Peterson, Joseph A DiRuzzo III, has said Mr Peterson did not enter the building because he believed initially that the gunfire was coming from outside.
Mr DiRuzzo did not immediately respond on Sunday to questions about Mr Peterson’s decision in 2016 not to pursue a Baker Act commitment of Cruz.
A new law passed by state legislators and signed by governor Rick Scott this month will give the police more power under the Baker Act to confiscate guns. It will also allow the police, with judicial approval, to prohibit a person who is deemed dangerous from owning guns for up to a year.
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Mental health records from earlier years, before Henderson therapists treated Cruz, show that a psychiatrist recommended sending him to a residential treatment facility in 2013, when he was 15 years old. That was the year he learned that he and his younger brother, Zachary, were adopted.
According to the records, his mother said he had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
An evaluation from Cross Creek, an alternative school where Cruz was sent in 2014, when he was in eighth grade, concluded he was “often moody, impulsive, angry, attention seeking, annoys others on purpose and threatens to hurt others”.
The records indicate that his mother said his behaviour worsened after he found his father, Roger, dead at home in 2004. Ms Cruz told the Cross Creek school that she had found knives and scissors in his bed, which she assumed he kept there to defend himself against his brother. The two boys had a “strained” relationship, according to the Cross Creek report.
Zachary Cruz has lived with a guardian since Ms Cruz’s death in November. He told deputies from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office two days after the shooting last month that he regretted that he and his friends had bullied his older brother. “Zachary wishes that he had been ‘nicer’ to his brother,” the deputies’ report said, adding that Nikolas “may have been the favoured brother”.
Nikolas Cruz moved to Stoneman Douglas High full time for his junior year, but he started having trouble almost immediately. According to the records, on 29 September 2016, the day after the Henderson team was called to the school, a clinician visited the Cruz home in Parkland and went over Cruz’s comments about guns. Ms Cruz responded that she did not worry about her son’s use of firearms.
“I’m not concerned and I’m not afraid,” she told the clinician, the Henderson records say. “My son has pellet guns and he’s always respected the rules of where they can and can’t be used.”
Unable or unwilling to try to forcibly commit Cruz, the school drafted a safety plan that prohibited him from bringing a backpack to school. He was also barred from practicing shooting skills with the Junior ROTC organisation at the school, which he had joined.
In November 2016, Cruz refused any more special education assistance in school, as was his right since he had turned 18 and his mother agreed, according to Robert W Runcie, superintendent of the Broward County Public Schools. Cruz’s behaviour deteriorated over the following months until 8 February 2017, when he was transferred to an alternative learning centre.
Three days later, Cruz purchased the AR-15 rifle.
The New York Times