The warning signs were everywhere. The Parkland killer was very familiar to the Broward County Sheriff's office, which had responded to dozens of calls involving him and his family over the last decade. The FBI did not follow-up on two explicit tips that the young man's online presence strongly suggested that he was a powder keg waiting to explode. After an incident involving bullets, the gunman was asked not to carry a backpack to school, presumably over fears that he might attempt to bring a firearm into the building. And now the Miami Herald has obtained psychological records demonstrating that therapists grappled for years with disturbing patterns of behavior exhibited by the eventual mass murder -- from blood-soaked dreams to violent outbursts to deep-seated paranoia:
Nearly four years before school shooter Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 students and educators at a Parkland high school, he confided in a therapist that he saw himself in a dream drenched in human blood. A May 3, 2014, notation in a Broward County schools psychiatric file said Cruz “reported [a dream] last week of him killing people and covered in blood. He smiled and told the therapist that sometimes he says things for shock value.” After Cruz’s disclosure to his therapist at the alternative Cross Creek School, administrators developed a “safety plan” to ensure the welfare of Cruz and others while the teen was on summer vacation. The plan included provisions for removing “all sharp objects from the home” and encouraging the youth to “verbalize what the problem is.” ... Portions of his psychiatric file, obtained by the Miami Herald on Friday, show a young man whose mental health exhibited frequent and extreme swings. His attitude would brighten for weeks at a time, then descend again into paranoia and anger.
The Herald chronicles how authorities "again and again" failed to heed glaring signals from the killer himself, and warnings from the people around him, prior to his deadly Valentine's Day spree:
The rage and obsession with violence documented by Cruz’s therapists during nearly two years of interactions when he was 15 to 17 years old continued through his school career: Again and again, authorities were warned about the teen’s explosive tendencies and lack of impulse control. Again and again, authorities ignored the warnings. In addition to the troubling behavior Cruz exhibited at the schools he attended — including an incident in which the teen reportedly brought a backpack with bullets to class — law enforcement officers were also alerted that Cruz might be dangerous. The FBI failed to act on two tips about Cruz, one of which involved Cruz posting online that he planned to become a “professional school shooter.” The Broward Sheriff’s Office was also warned about the teen, and had received a report that he “planned to shoot up the school.”
The story goes on to detail a number of documented incidents in which various therapists raised concerns about the shooter's words and actions -- debating over whether he should be able to gain access to a pellet gun (or perhaps even 'earn' a real gun with good behavior), and whether his wishes to be 'mainstreamed' into a regular high school should be honored. And this path of adults attempting to deal with the emotional gyrations of a troubled teenage is littered with harrowing indicators of future disaster:
In one session, Cruz acknowledged to his therapist that he visited YouTube to “research wars, military material and terrorist topics.”...School administrators spoke with Lynda Cruz in the months that followed about their mutual concerns about Cruz’s desire to own a gun and take shooting lessons. The therapist, a Sept. 23, 2014, notation said, “shared concerns with parent about his obsession with guns/military and his poor anger control.” ... In one April 2014 session, the therapist discussed Cruz’s “aggressive behavior at home due to his not getting his way.” Cruz responded by saying that he saw the therapist as a threat. The therapist noted that Cruz was “very paranoid.” The following month, Cruz cursed at school staff and made comments to his teacher that made the school “fear that he may act out and harm others,” the therapist noted. Cruz told the therapist he liked to make his teacher feel uncomfortable. A meeting was scheduled to discuss a treatment plan “to keep client and others safe,” the therapist noted.
Additional, unambiguous signs of trouble:
Cruz’s school therapist and psychiatrist jointly wrote a letter to another one of the teen’s psychiatrists articulating a host of serious concerns. “At home, he continues to be aggressive and destructive with minimal provocation,” the letter said. “For instance, he destroyed his television after losing a video game that he was playing. Nikolas has a hatchet that he uses to chop up a dead tree in his backyard. Mom has not been able to locate that hatchet as of lately.” “When upset he punches holes in the walls and has used sharp tools to cut up the upholstery on the furniture and carve holes in the walls of the bathroom,” the letter added.
Complicating matters, however, were the young man's bouts of functionality and improvement. The killer seemed to make positive adjustments in his life, much to the understandable encouragement of his family and psychologists. He was unstable and unpredictable, but his descent into homicidal darkness was not an inexorable downward spiral; it was uneven and complicated, with rays of hope along the way. It's impossible to see the future, of course, and most teenagers consumed by angst and prone to outbursts would never resort to physical violence, let alone mass murder. Realities like this underscore why questions about actions and options are so thorny. What sort of interventions are appropriate? What sort of limitations on a citizen's freedoms are justified, and at what point? If a therapist betrays a client's trust by making a judgment call that turns out to be a false alarm, could that mental health professional have violated his or her patient's rights -- and irreparably damaged his or her relationship with the person who confided in them? And couldn't that betrayal be worse in the long run, by poisoning the well for future therapy? The answers to these questions aren't easy. We shouldn't pretend that they are.
But what's also understandable is a sense among a shocked, angry and grieving public that among the Sheriff's office, the FBI, school administrators, and a bevy of therapists, something surely could and should have been done about the Parkland killer before he gained access to guns and shot up his former school. It does not seem unreasonable to believe that someone with such a long paper trail of run-ins with police and established mental and emotional issues should not be able to purchase guns -- even if that person has not (yet) committed a crime. How to translate that instinct into viable public policy is a separate question. A new law just signed by Gov. Rick Scott gives the state new powers, via court orders, to confiscate guns from individuals deemed to be a threat. A bill introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio would establish a system of temporary gun purchase restraining orders (with standards and due process in place), a concept we discussed here. As always, a major tension involves how to keep guns out of the hands of criminally mentally ill people without depriving law-abiding Americans of their rights. Collective punishment is unfair, and many proposed infringements on the Second Amendment are unconstitutional. Another fair question posed by gun rights advocates is why governments and bureaucracies that are currently failing to make the existing system work properly would improve by adding new laws and restrictions onto the books.