Opinion

Parkland Suspect Sought Special Ed Help but Was Derailed by Tug-of-War With School. To Parents of Special Needs Kids, It’s a Familiar Story

By Beth Hawkins | August 12, 2018

People are evacuated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that killed 17 students and adults and injured multiple others Feb. 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On Aug. 3, Broward County Public Schools attempted to comply with a court order to release a consultant’s report on suspected school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s history in the district. A judge had ordered two-thirds of the report blacked out, but when a reporter at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel pasted the online version into a new document, all the text appeared.

The story thus revealed does not exonerate Cruz or implicate the district. It highlights no magic moment when a different outcome could have been guaranteed and February’s Parkland massacre of 14 students and three coaches prevented. It does, however, suggest that somewhere under Cruz’s layers of depravity there is — or was — a troubled boy who desperately needed special education services and terrified himself as much as his teachers.

Parts of the report enraged me, because after years of intensive interventions failed to quell Cruz’s violent tendencies, he was placed at a small high school for students with severe behavioral disorders. He did very well and soon was on track to graduate.

But when attempts to return him to a mainstream classroom didn’t go well, he was given an unpalatable — and erroneous — ultimatum that led him to waive his disability rights. And when Cruz realized he could not finish school without special education and asked to return to the alternative Cross Creek School, the adults who were supposed to advocate for him seemingly first stonewalled and then abandoned him. Never mind that Cruz was doing what we all want students with disabilities to do — advocating for himself — and that he was asking for a remedy that was both within his rights and precisely what he needed educationally.

There’s plenty outside of Cruz’s education to point to here — not least the fact that he was able to buy an assault rifle despite a history of violence dating to toddlerhood and severe mental health challenges. But the dynamic unmasked in the private portions of the report is one that many of the families of the 1 in 7 U.S. children who learn with disabilities will recognize.

I know personally any number of parents of students with disabilities who have pushed back on behalf of their child and found their relationship with their school suddenly rife with conflict. Once things turn adversarial, it often doesn’t matter whether a family’s requests are within its rights; in practice, the adults in the system sometimes wash their hands of the student.

I also have a filing cabinet full of documents that concern the special education journeys of children who came to my attention as a reporter whose trade involves the forensic reconstruction of the narrative when things go wrong.

Burned in my mind’s eye is the image of Don Austin, an inmate who signed a waiver with shackled hands granting me access to the special ed records containing his story. First incarcerated at 15, he finished serving his second prison sentence in December and as of May 10 — two weeks before his 26th birthday — was a wanted fugitive. His records revealed his deepening humiliation at not being able to read, a gap that went unaddressed as his behavior went from disruptive to dangerous.

His fat file sits just a few feet from another, slimmer stack of papers concerning my own child’s trip through special ed. Far from violent or emotionally disturbed, my child is fragile. And yet there are chapters in Cruz’s history and Austin’s that I can recognize not just as a reporter, but as a parent. The commonality is a tension inherent in how schools engage with families of special-needs kids.

A body of well-worn law recognizes the rights of children with disabilities to a free and appropriate education. It is incumbent on schools to enforce those rights. And yet, when the child’s chief advocate in the schools — the special ed case manager or another member of the team that creates the agreement between school and family — disagrees with the student or parent about just what is appropriate, suddenly you have an adversarial relationship with your advocate.

In an instant, the person who is supposed to have the expertise to meet your child’s needs might or might not be giving you all the information you need to make an informed decision. Or may have presented no choice — only the option that works for him or her.

Suddenly, you realize you have angered or exasperated the person who runs interference with others on your child’s behalf. Or maybe you’ve just burdened him by asking for too much, or for something she doesn’t want to admit she doesn’t know how to provide.

Maybe you were asking for something small and entirely reasonable, and suddenly you find you’ve inadvertently triggered the nuclear option. You’re clearly in the legal right, and yet your school, which is after all a community that thrives or festers based on the strengths of its relationships, has closed itself, literally or relationally, to a child.

As detailed in the Broward report, the last two years of Cruz’s high school career were peppered with mistakes. Placed in eighth grade at Cross Creek, a program for students with severe behavioral problems, he began to excel.

So much so that school staff, properly recognizing his right to learn in the least restrictive setting possible, the report concludes, transferred him to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. There were successes, but then enough failures that they sought to transfer him back. By then an 18-year-old with a girlfriend and a goal of graduating, Cruz refused.

At that point, the report concludes, a mistake was made. Two staffers from the alternative school wrongly told Cruz he had three options: return to the segregated setting, sue the district, or stay in the regular high school with no special ed services.

“He told them he wasn’t going to Cross Creek,” the Sun-Sentinel reported, and signed a statement that he wanted to stay where he was.

“The moment he signed the form, he lost all protections for disabled students under federal law,” reporters Brittany Wallman and Paula McMahon wrote. “Though the district knew he needed services and had put in writing just two weeks prior that he ‘requires access to therapeutic support as needed throughout the school day at this time,’ they began treating him ‘in the same way as any general education student.’”

After failing in general ed for more than a year, Cruz left Marjory Stoneman Douglas and tried to re-enroll in the alternative school but was told, despite the district’s 15 years of experience with him, that he would need to be re-evaluated for eligibility for special ed, which would take six weeks. To be evaluated, he would have to re-enroll at Douglas — where an administrator said it was too late in the school year.

All this is against the law — and, according to The New York Times, district policy.

It’s impossible to know, of course, what the intent was in giving Cruz what the consultant’s report called “incorrect information.” I don’t doubt it was a Hail Mary intended to steer him to the right placement. But I can tell you from personal experience that when your advocate becomes adversarial, it feels coercive.

And hostile. The goal shifts from figuring out how to make a young person a fully participating member of a community to a hot potato the advocates are suddenly tossing back and forth, trying not to be left holding.

The year my child became unwelcome in a traditional district school, one of the things I objected to, first calmly and later in most-definitely-not-my-inside-voice, was the fact that one of my child’s teachers insisted on seating him next to a student twice his tiny size who, for two class periods a day, called him a “retard” as many times as possible. Her reasoning: If she put all the students “with issues” in one place, it would be easier to keep an eye on them.

There was more, because adversarial encounters have a funny way of accelerating. In our case, the coercive “incorrect information” was more like inappropriate insinuations. That we were lucky to have services in the first place, and the next evaluation might not find an eligible level of need. That I was asking for things (documentation and data) that showed dangerous parental judgment.

A paraprofessional was assigned to stand over my student, logging the number of times he spoke out of turn. To what end, I never learned, but I don’t know that it mattered. The net effect was to communicate that at some juncture fault was going to be apportioned.

Typically, it’s important when telling the story of a young person whose behavior is frightening to find something in the story that shows an innate kernel of potential. Explosive and frightening from the age of 3, Cruz may simply have been too disordered and his alleged crime too horrific for this to be possible in his case.

The authors of the report note that their evaluation was not cast “through the lens of hindsight.” But it’s impossible not to speculate. If nothing else, the record reveals a young man who wanted to graduate — which he was on track to do before he signed away his special education rights — badly enough to ask to go back to a segregated setting. It was the adults who got in his way.

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