Commission learning what caused and didn’t cause Florida high school massacre

Flowers, candles and mementos sit outside one of the makeshift memorials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 27, 2018. Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school will reopen on February 28, 2018 two weeks after 17 people were killed in a shooting by former student, Nikolas Cruz, leaving 17 people dead and 15 injured on February 14, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The state commission investigating the Florida high school massacre is learning about what happened before, during and after the shooting, but perhaps even more importantly what didn’t happen.

Suspect Nikolas Cruz had an extensive school disciplinary and mental health record and may have received much leniency, but his diversion into a Broward County schools program for problem students didn’t make it possible for him to buy a gun.

He perhaps should have been detained for a mental health evaluation, but that too wouldn’t have kept him from purchasing the AR-15 allegedly used to kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, officials have said. And problems with the county’s first-responder radio system made coordinating the initial police response difficult, but the victims were already dead or dying by the time the failures arose.

“In the heat of the moment, things get reported, things become facts that with the benefit of some time and some understanding of the events you start to realize those weren’t as big a factor as you thought,” said commissioner Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed.

The 15-member Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission is composed of law enforcement officials, educators, mental health professionals, politicians and parents of student victims. Petty and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission’s chairman, said they are confident legislators will adopt the recommendations the committee’s report will make. It is due Jan. 1.

“They are looking for real answers and true answers,” Gualtieri said. “They are going to act on it.”

Highlights of what the commission has learned so far include:

CRUZ’S MENTAL HEALTH

The commission received details of Cruz’s mental health treatment behind closed doors Thursday — those records are protected by state and federal law — but glimpses emerged during open testimony. Gualtieri told members that counselors had at least 140 contacts with Cruz over the years trying to get him help, but his late mother frequently interfered. When a counselor objected to Cruz’s desire to buy a gun, Gualtieri said Lynda Cruz said he could purchase one and after he turned 18 helped him get the necessary state identification card.

It is also known that Cruz spent years at a school for children with emotional and behavioral problems, but was allowed to attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas even though there were questions about his stability. Cruz, 19, is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder.

GUN LAWS

The commission learned that Cruz’s February 2017 purchase of the AR-15 and other guns were legal under then-Florida law. Under the old law, Cruz could only have been blocked by a felony conviction or being adjudicated mentally ill — neither of those happened. Also, even if Cruz had been detained under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows a three-day involuntary mental health evaluation, he wouldn’t have been barred.

Three weeks after the shooting, Florida raised the minimum age for buying a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21, matching the age limit for handguns, with few exceptions. The new laws also allow law enforcement to petition a judge to block a person they believe dangerous from buying or owning guns for a year and request extensions.

PROMISE PROGRAM

The commission concluded that Broward County schools’ Promise Program, which received significant criticism, played no role in the shooting. Under the program, students who commit petty crimes or rules violations are referred to the off-campus program for two-to-10 days instead of being suspended and possibly arrested. They are assessed, given a course of treatment, attend classes and receive counseling.

Cruz was referred to the program once in 2013 for breaking a faucet in a middle school bathroom. And while records are unclear whether Cruz attended, Gualtieri said that even if Cruz had been charged criminally it would not have interfered with his ability to buy a gun four years later. The commission did say there are flaws in the program and Petty said it created an atmosphere of too much leniency for students like Cruz that needs to be addressed.

RADIO SYSTEMS

The shooting revealed flaws in the Broward County’s aging emergency radio system. As dozens of deputies tried to transmit in the minutes after the shooting, the system overloaded and began blocking new transmissions, including those of the area commander, Capt. Jan Jordan. She received extensive criticism for not taking charge immediately, but she couldn’t, Gualtieri said — her radio wouldn’t let her. Even if she had, no one who died would have been saved. Only former Deputy Scot Peterson, the school’s security officer, got to the building during the first three minutes when the killings happened and he did not go inside. The radio system failed after that. It is scheduled to be replaced next year.

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