A Failure of the System: How to Avoid School Tragedies Before They Occur

Joel Eisenberg

Nikolas CruzAP File Photo

On October 19, 2021, more than three years following the tragic February 14, 2018 shootings at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the families of both the deceased and the injured reached a $25 million settlement with the Broward County school district.

The following day, gunman Nikolas Cruz, who was 19 at the time of the shootings, plead guilty in a Florida courtroom to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, and he now faces minimally a lifetime behind bars, or the maximum sentence of the death penalty. Prosecutors are seeking the latter.

In court, Cruz offered the following apology:

“I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day. If I were to get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others. I am doing this for you, and I do not care if you do not believe me. And I love you, and I know you don’t believe me, but I have to live with this every day, and it brings me nightmares and I can’t live with myself sometimes, but I try to push through because I know that’s what you guys would want me to do. I hate drugs, and I believe this country would do better if everyone would stop smoking marijuana and doing all these drugs and causing racism and violence out in the streets. I’m sorry, and I can’t even watch TV anymore. And I’m trying my best to maintain my composure, and I just want you to know I’m really sorry, and I hope you give me a chance to try to help others. I believe it’s your decision to decide where I go, and whether I live or die. Not the jury’s. I believe it’s your decision. I’m sorry.”

When questioned as to his sentence, Cruz followed his statement with: “… I believe they should have the right to choose, the victims themselves, on whether I should take life or death.”

The Parkland school shootings tragedy, in which Cruz used an AR-15 rifle, is now considered the deadliest in U.S. history.

He was taken into custody the same day.

A cursory exploration of efforts before and since to curb the tide of school violence have led to little measurable progress. Arguments on the left generally include an outcry over gun control, while those on the right typically point to Second Amendment rights, an amendment which in itself has long proven controversial based on its reading.

Quoting from The Institute of Education Sciences 2020 Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety: In 2019–20, there were a total of 75 school shootings with casualties, including 27 school shootings with deaths and 48 school shootings with injuries only. In addition, there were 37 reported school shootings with no casualties in 2019–20. The majority of school shootings (including those with and without casualties) occurred at high schools.

I will conclude this piece with a learned opinion, based on my own past. I was a former special education teacher working with ”highly at-risk youth, severely autistic children and adults, substance abusers and gang members. I taught in both Brooklyn, New York, and Los Angeles, California, collectively for ten years. Threats and violence were rife at these schools, and it became clear that system rules were not in any sense organized against those possibilities. Neither was self-abuse nor even suicides uncommon. Mental health checks were inconsistent at best; parental role models were often rare.

Two of the four schools in which I was placed were public schools, one was private, the other was designated as “non-public,” meaning in this instance they followed the schedule and general curricula of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), but did not attain the entirely of their funding from them.

None of the schools in which I taught offered training classes for school staff to identify possible antecedent behaviors on the part of students.

Cruz was 19. As with Columbine and other school shooting tragedies, red flags were present that were largely ignored, all of which are widely available to explore online and outside of the scope of this piece. Today, with social media among our most dominant forms of inter-personal communication, it is not unusual to find threatening videos or manifestos written by students with emotional issues, just as such videos and manifestos have been exposed to the world by (other) domestic terrorists.

It is certainly not so simple, but teachers and administration together need to be better prepared in reading those signs. These lessons must come from the top on down. Depression and suicidal ideologies must be taken more seriously. If a student needs off-campus therapy, this should become part of the process.

Nikolas Cruz was not a minor when he committed these crimes. When he was captured, he was said to have spoken to authorities of voices in his head and a past suicide attempt.

And in the books presently is his guilty plea.

If Nikolas is considered by some to not have been in his right mind during the time of the incident, he not only had the presence of mind to carry out his plan, he was quite loquacious today when he acknowledged that the parents of the victims, and the survivors themselves, should decide his ultimate fate.

He may indeed have needed help, once. Perhaps we could have helped him before he sealed his fate as a cold-blooded killer.

Regardless, however, of whether the system failed him or we did, 17 students lost their lives.

It is once again too late for moral quibbling.

If we want to enact real and lasting change, teachers and administrators must undergo comprehensive training to identify signs of a potential incident before they happen. Doing so will certainly not stop the scourge, but if enacted prudently it should certainly curb it.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA

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