One year ago, Nikolas Cruz walked through an unlocked, unstaffed door at his former high school — from which he had been expelled for fighting — armed with a rifle and several hundred rounds of ammunition. What followed was one of the deadliest school massacres in U.S. history and the ensuing fallout as the nation put a microscope on events leading up to Cruz’ attack.
The shooting in Parkland, Florida was not just a statistic. It sparked a largely youth-led movement to bring increased attention to school shootings and to demand tangible solutions and responses to two central questions: “Could we have known that these attacks were being planned?” and, if so, “What could we have done to prevent them?”
Several resources have offered answers. Shortly after the attack, we published a blog regarding lessons learned from Parkland based on information derived from media accounts. Now, in a 458-page report, a state panel investigates why and how Cruz was able to pull off this act of targeted violence. Both reveal fatal gaps in the threat assessment process surrounding Cruz’ life, and if filled, those gaps could have alerted authorities of the risk he posed for violence.
As for prevention, I must emphasize that a critical measure to prevent targeted violence in schools is an effective threat assessment process that enables information-sharing and intelligence gathering. It simply saves lives.
The Purpose of the Threat Assessment Process
Threat assessment is the process of gathering and assessing information about individuals who may have the interest, motive, intention and capability of mounting attacks. The process evaluates the potential threat to and vulnerability of a targeted individual and is key to preventing violence.
Once an assessment is made, a plan can be developed and implemented to monitor the individual and to intervene, as appropriate, to prevent an attack. Attention to the individual’s motives and attack-related behaviors and to the systems (i.e., family, work, community, criminal justice, mental health and social services) that the individual is involved with are key to assessing and managing a potential threat.
The Parkland Report details the wealth of threat intelligence that a threat assessment team should have accessed in order to take appropriate measures to protect Nikolas Cruz from himself and from hurting others. It also demonstrates that the lack of an adequately trained threat assessment team and structured behavioral threat assessment process severely diminishes the effectiveness of all violence prevention efforts.
The Warning Signs
One of the pioneering and relevant studies for conducting threat assessment in schools can be found in the U.S. Secret Service and U.S Department of Education’s Safe School Initiative (SSI). After the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, the SSI Identified 37 incidents of targeted school violence between 1974 and 2000 and examined the thinking and behavior of the shooters in these targeted violence incidents.
The study determined that most of these targeted violence incidents were not sudden or impulsive. Instead, the subjects frequently planned their actions — often communicating these plans to others beforehand — and engaged in behavior before the attack that was concerning. Many of the perpetrators had been experiencing difficulties in their personal lives, such as mental illness, bullying in the classroom or a tragic event. Finally, many possessed or had used weapons.
With respect to Cruz, the parallels are clear. Over 60 pages of the report are dedicated to examining the events of Cruz’ life that may have had an impact on his mental and emotional state. It reveals alarming warning signs that were either unknown by key people in the threat assessment process or not acted on by those who knew. A few key findings include the following.
- Cruz was a troubled child and young adult who displayed aggressive and violent tendencies as early as 3 years old.
- Cruz struggled in academics and attended 10 different schools between 1999 and 2017, including at least three alternative schools.
- Between the ages of 3 and 19, Cruz was involved in 69 documented incidents in which he threatened someone, engaged in violence, talked about guns or other weapons or engaged in other behaviors of concern. One of the most chilling is a statement by someone close to Cruz’ family who stated Cruz “might be a Columbine in the making,” which was documented as having occurred a few months before the Parkland shooting.
- The Cruz family had a total of 43 contacts with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office before the Parkland shooting, 21 of which involved Nikolas.
- Cruz was known to post photographs of himself wearing gas masks and body armor while holding weapons. Several witnesses spoke of seeing Cruz’ social media posts, which showed him with firearms or knives.
- So rampant were the concerns about Cruz that one student who saw Cruz while fleeing the school during the shooting stated to him, “I’m surprised you weren’t the one who did this.”
What the Broward County School System Did – and What They Could Have Done
The SSI’s report does highlight some strategies for predicting incidents and protecting students. It recommends developing the capacity to evaluate information that may indicate a potential attack and employing the aforementioned threat assessment process to prevent acts of violence.
These are admittedly broad suggestions that while providing a useful framework, they may be difficult to imagine in practice. After all, schools are meant to focus on education and recreation, not airtight security. This particular high school did implement some of these practices — but not as well as they should have.
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland is part of the Broward County School System (BCPS). At the time of the attack, the BCPS had established threat assessment teams at each of its schools. These teams were tasked with carrying out a threat assessment inquiry or investigation to gather and analyze information about the behavior and communications of the student of concern. This information, in turn, should have permitted these authorities to make reasonable judgments about whether the student of concern was moving along a path toward an attack on an identifiable target.
The BCPS appropriately initiated a threat assessment process involving Cruz on September 28, 2016, and assembled a threat assessment team that included two assistant principals, a teacher, a mental health professional and a law enforcement officer. Yet, the Assistant Principal who was placed in charge as Team Lead had never been trained on basic principles of threat assessment nor conducted a threat assessment in 31 years as an educator. The Parkland Report does not give much detail about the team’s findings at the time, but it does suggest that they were murky at best. They used an abstract rating system to define Cruz’ behavior, but none of the members knew the response associated with his rating. The Parkland Report indicates that this rating may have increased later on, but again, the threat assessment team did not have a defined response procedure in place.
Moreover, the threat assessment team’s findings were never shared beyond the group. The information sharing that is vital to effective violence prevention simply was not present in the BCPS threat assessment process.
Steps Schools Can Take
The public commission report on the Parkland shooting provides more specific recommendations for how to avoid the BCPS’ missteps, including the following.
- Every school district should implement a policy that requires its personnel to report all indicators of suspicious student behavior to an administrator.
- Administrators should be required to document the report and how they will address the matter.
- The policy should require that all documents detailing threats of school violence be reviewed at least by the school’s principal — if not by a higher authority — and reported to the threat assessment team, which must include law enforcement representatives.
I want to emphasize that it has been my experience there is no right way or wrong way to conduct a threat assessment in the public and private sectors, including schools. One corporation or school system may decide to give primary responsibility to specially trained law enforcement professionals. Another may retain responsibility for most threat assessment and management in-house. Still, other entities elect to develop “blended” systems. Deciding which framework of responsibilities makes the most sense requires considering the principles of threat assessment, the functions needed for a successful program, and local resources and relationships.
We can repeat our condolences, honor the victims and spend at least a moment on February 14, 2019 to remember the tragedy that occurred in Parkland. But the best way to honor the lives lost and to support the living who have spent the last year fighting against violence in schools is to champion and advance preventative countermeasures at educational facilities across the country.