Parkland school shooter’s defense: Teacher says ‘animal fantasy’ behaviors were problem in pre-K

Susan Hendler-Lubar, a special education teacher, testified on Monday about having Nikolas Cruz in her classroom when he was a boy aged 3 and 4. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A former special education teacher testified on Monday during the Parkland school shooter’s death penalty trial.

Susan Hendler-Lubar, a witness for the defense, said she met Nikolas Cruz when he was a preschool student in an Exceptional Student Education program for children ages 3-5 from 2003 to 2004 in Broward County.

Hendler-Lubar said he was eligible for the program because he had a developmental delay and language impairment at 3 years old. Once he was in the classroom, she said she noticed Cruz was engaging in “animal fantasy” behavior.

“Those behaviors looked like curling his hands into paws, hissing, scratching out, scaling furniture, and so that was pretty unusual to see that,” Hendler-Lubar said.

This is the image the Parkland school shooter's defense showed his former teacher on Monday in Broward County court.

Hendler-Lubar said she created an area that allowed him to isolate with books and toys related to the wild cats that he appeared to be imitating. She said she used the area as both a reward for him and to keep other students safe.

“Nikolas had a lot of aggressive behaviors and he had limited expressive language. He also had some fine motor problems,” Hendler-Lubar said later adding, “Nikolas would push children, would scratch at them, would topple over furniture ... he would stay away from other children. If they got too close to him, he would basically pounce.”

Hendler-Lubar said she reported Cruz needed “excessive praise, reassurance, and encouragement” to get anything done in the classroom and didn’t do well with “transitioning from one activity to the next.” She said she determined Cruz needed to be in a classroom where there was a lower teacher-student ratio.

Records on public display in court

This record of Nikolas Cruz's pre-K education was on public display on Monday in Broward County court. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)
Defense introduced this message Susan Hendler-Lubar, a special education teacher, sent when Nikolas Cruz was three years old. (.)

Watch the video of her testimony

About the Author:

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.