School district mishandled Parkland shooter's access to special education, report says

Broward County Public Schools releases redacted report of independent review

By Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer, Jeff Weinsier - Investigative Reporter, Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - After a judge ruled Friday that a Broward County Public Schools district report on a review of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz should be released, the report revealed the district failed him.  

The report, commissioned by the district and conducted by the Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee, suggests the school district mishandled his case during his last two years of school.

"Our analysis was based on the information available to school and district staff at that time," the report says. "The appropriateness of their decisions was assessed based on the student's then-current status rather than through the lens of hindsight."

The consultants determined there was a failure that was related to parental consent and a failure when Cruz changed his mind about needing to be in a special program. According to the consultants it appears that his request for help wasn't handled effectively and with urgency. 

"Throughout this review there was evidence that, with isolated exceptions, the district adhered to
procedural and substantive requirements when implementing this student’s exceptional education
program," Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee consultants wrote in the report

Parents who want to understand the failures that resulted in the deaths of 17 people on campus were eager to read the  70-page document on Friday afternoon, but the majority of the text was redacted. Black blocks covered at least 27 pages of  the report that is supposed to show what went wrong with Cruz's special education. 

When he was a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, school employees tried to transfer him to the special education campus, but Cruz, who was 18 years old, refused. The review reveal Cruz later wanted to return to a special education campus, but Broward schools didn't respond swiftly to his request.

The consultant's report says it is important for staff to understand that "an adult student revokes consent for their own services against advice of the parent and continued informal contact with designated school staff could result in the student's decision to reestablish services."

Collaborative Educational Network, which started the independent review in March and completed it June 16, determined special education services need to be "referred and evaluated within established timelines" and the current systems need to be "more effective."

The review implicitly determined there were "flaws in communication systems." The recommendation included a need to "review existing data systems to identify redundancies and inefficiencies and determine the most effective way to integrate multiple systems."

Judge Elizabeth Scherer said releasing the report won't jeopardize Cruz's right to a fair trial, because most of the information has been redacted. Attorneys for Cruz argued that releasing the report could jeopardize his right to a fair trial. Assistant public defender David Frankel told the judge in court that he didn't trust the determination of the consultancy firm the district hired. 

"In creating such a one-sided report in a self-serving document, which directly discusses Mr. Cruz's path through the Broward County school system, they create the illusion that there is or there was nothing unusual to suggest that they missed his psychological issues, which is discordant with what their teachers and everybody says," Frankel said.

This is the latest of several legal battles involving release of evidence about Cruz, such as video showing law enforcement response at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and his post-arrest statement.

Cruz, 19, faces the death penalty if convicted of killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in the Valentine's Day attack. 

Here are the eight recommendations the consultants made:

1. Review the focus of staff development regarding the placement of students in exceptional student education center schools to incorporate training and practice in facilitating emotionally charged meetings and ensure staff have a complete understanding of the requirements as they apply to all possible scenarios.

2. Review policies, procedures, and staff development to ensure students enrolled in off-campus learning center sites, who are suspected of having a disability and needing special education services, are referred and evaluated within established timelines.

3. Review training and guidance regarding revocation of consent, with attention to less common situations such as when an adult student revokes consent for their own services against advice of the parent and continued informal contact with designated school staff could result in the student’s decision to reestablish services. A special needs student  should have access to the counseling and mental health services available to all students. A parent or adult student orally states their desire to revoke consent but does not submit the request in writing as required, so that staff remain neutral and are able to act without either promoting or hindering the revocation.


4. Review procedures and guidance documents regarding reentry into exceptional student education services after consent has been revoked to more explicitly consider situations such when:
- There is a history of supporting data indicating that the student has been a high-needs student; individualized education program team members strongly disagreed with the decision to revoke consent based on the data available at the time of revocation; or there is substantial evidence indicating the student needs services and no recent evidence from the general education record indicating the student no longer has a disability and needs special education services.

5. Review existing data systems to identify redundancies and inefficiencies and determine the
most effective way to integrate multiple systems, maximizing accuracy and shareability across users.

6. Establish a protocol for reviewing the records of students transferring to alternative education
programs to include discipline and exceptional student education records in addition to course and credit information. The process must be designed to prohibit potentially discriminatory practices while ensuring the receiving program has the educational information needed to provide effective and appropriate placements and services.

7. Establish a protocol for communicating with all relevant staff in a receiving school or
program when a student with social/emotional or behavioral needs transitions from an exceptional student education center school or exceptional student education separate class setting in a traditional school building to a less restrictive general education setting. In addition to the annual goals and positive behavioral supports included within an individualized education program, a behavior intervention plan or similar document that more explicitly  details the actions to be taken in response to student behavior and includes a formal system for monitoring and/or tracking student performance should be considered for transitioning students.

8. Develop an audit process to be implemented for all records that pertain to discipline and
safety, including but not limited to consequences and interventions imposed in response to
disciplinary infractions and threat assessments. The purpose of the process is three-fold: (1)
to determine the extent to which the actions proposed are implemented as stated in the
relevant documentation; (2) identify and correct flaws in communication systems that may
impede implementation; and (3) hold accountable the staff members responsible for
implementation.

 

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