Redacted portions of Cruz report paint portrait of disturbed student

Nikolas Cruz swung wildly between improvement and decline

By Tim Swift - Local10.com Digital Editor

PARKLAND, Fla. - Redacted portions of a report on the Parkland gunman's time in the Broward school system paint a portrait of a deeply troubled student who showed signs of progress only to slide back into old behaviors.

Throughout the more than 15 years Nikolas Cruz spent in the Broward County school system, staff members reported violent outbursts and antisocial behavior, but others noted periods where Cruz's behavior and academic performance markedly improved.  

The document was redacted, but an electronic copy made public by the school district still contained the information underneath the blacked-out portions.

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.

The redacted portions of the report provided a detailed narrative of Cruz's time in school from prekindergarten to just before the Valentine's Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead and more than a dozen others wounded.

The report said Nikolas Cruz began receiving services from the school district at three years old after he was asked to leave a private prekindergarten because of his behavior, including kicking and biting. The district placed him in its special education program, called Exceptional Student Education or ESE, because of behavioral and developmental issues.

'Animal fantasies'

During his early schooling, Cruz struggled with aggressive behavior and had "animal fantasies," the report said, leading the district to have the boy, then 5, evaluated by a psychologist. 

"[The student] seems to identify as an animal. He often crawls on the floor or ground, pounces on another student, makes seemingly animal-like growling sounds and grimaces while holding his hands in a paw-like manner…. With high levels of reinforcement, the behaviors reduced, but his aggressive  behaviors appeared to be unpredictable; thus, [positive behaviors] could not be constantly reinforced," the evaluator noted at the time.

While Cruz's academic performance gradually improved, his behavioral problems persisted, the report said.

Nikolas Cruz (right) and his younger brother, Zachary, in a family photo.

Another evaluator noted: "[He] cannot organize himself to adapt to his misperceptions and expectations; thus he engages in fantasy as his means of coping with these feelings of stress. [The student] is also impulsive with no sense of boundary; thus, he acts out his fantasies, often explosively, in expressing his feelings of stress and anxiety."

Cruz attended Coral Springs Elementary School until fifth grade, all while under the ESE program, which included counseling and language therapy.

The report noted that Cruz's mother, Lynda, was intensely involved with Cruz's counseling and schoolwork. While Cruz had trouble controlling his temper, a staff member in 2006 gave Cruz a mixed report. 

"[The student] can demonstrate a very 'sweet' demeanor. He has friends in the classroom. At times, he has difficulty interacting with peers. He can perceive them to be making fun of him even when they are not. He is very inquisitive. He is able to transition smoothly from one task to another with much encouragement and prompting. He seems anxious at times. He strives to be 'perfect' and when he makes a mistake, he can get frustrated which may lead to an emotional 'outburst.'"

In 2007, Cruz's behavior took a turn for the worse. At one point, he had to be removed from the classroom a minimum of four days of week. Cruz demonstrated behaviors that lasted "in duration as well as intensity," the report said.

The following year, Cruz was evaluated yet again. The review found clinically significant levels of hyperactivity and aggression in addition to anxiety and depression.

"He also reported that he almost always feels that his life is getting worse and worse and he used to be happier," the evaluator wrote.

As he left elementary school and moved on to Westglades Middle School, his teachers noted a marked improvement in his behavior and academic performance. His mother was pleased with his progress and was impressed he was using "big vocabulary words."

Teachers reported fewer outbursts but noted that he struggled to make friends.

"He is very quiet in class. He will not go out of his way to make friends. However, lately at recess, he’s been playing games with his peers. Many times he needs to be asked by others to socialize within a group," one report read.

Starting in 2012, Cruz's behavior declined again. He started to receive in-school suspensions after he repeatedly used profanity and addressed a teacher by his first name. By seventh grade, he received his first out-of-school suspension after fighting in the cafeteria.

During the this period, school officials recorded 19 significant incidents, including when Cruz set off a false fire alarm. But as he reached ninth grade, Cruz found new purpose and the behavioral problems subsided. He told teachers he wanted to go into the military and graduate from a "regular" high school.

Although his teachers, now at Cross Creek School, were pleased with his improvement, their reports sounded notes of caution. Cruz was described as being goaded into jumping off the back of a bus. In another incident, a classmate punched Cruz after he used a racial slur.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ultimately, his teachers recommended he that be transferred to a mainstream setting -- Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz gradually transitioned to the Parkland high school, taking two classes at Stoneman Douglas while receiving counseling services at Cross Creek.

By January 2016, Cruz was attending Stoneman Douglas full-time. His teachers there were initially pleased with Cruz's progress.

"[The student] has shown that he can be a model student. ... He has removed himself from peers that are engaging in negative behavior. He takes responsibility for his actions and follows direction. [He] has learned to advocate for himself and has done very well with asking for assistance," a report noted at the time.

By his second year at Stoneman Douglas, Cruz's behavior and grades declined significantly. By then, he had turned 18 and was entitled to make his own decisions about his education.

Reports of suicide attempt

In September 2016, he was disciplined for fighting. That same month, teachers reported that Cruz was using profane language and drew a swastika on his backpack. At the same time, he told a classmate that he drank gasoline and cut himself. 

The district immediately intervened and conducted a suicide assessment. However, Henderson Behavioral Health Youth Emergency Services found that Cruz did not need to be committed. 

The report also confirms that the school district knew Cruz wanted to own weapons.

"Mother was called this morning and all the incidents were discussed. Student is begging mom to get him a Florida ID so he can buy a gun. Mom thinks it is not a serious matter at all. The Youth Emergency Services (YES) team and Henderson was called in,” a report noted in 2016.  

By November 2016, the staff at Stoneman Douglas started a process to move Cruz back to Cross Creek School, where he would have more access to mental health services. However Cruz, now 18, refused to consider the transfer, and his mother supported his decision.

Continuing to clash with students and staff and failing most of his classes, Cruz withdrew from Stoneman Douglas in February 2017. He would not return for more than year.

From Stoneman, Cruz would move on to two vocational schools. He had few outburst or problems in these new settings, but Cruz was cut off from the special services of the ESE program.

At one point, Lynda Cruz asked the district if he could return to Cross Creek School, where he had excelled, but the district determined Cruz was no longer eligible for the program.

The overall report cites this as one of the school district's biggest mistakes in regards to Cruz. Without access to counseling, Cruz's life deteriorated. His mother died in November 2017. He was asked to leave his new home after he refused to give up his weapons.

On Valentine's Day, Cruz ordered an Uber and returned to his "regular" school, but this time he was armed and prepared to kill.

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