Nineteen Years to Prevent a Tragedy

I’ve never met Nikolas Cruz, who carried out the horrific shooting in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday. Nor have I met those who tried to help him through the years. But those of us who work in mental health, schools, law enforcement and treatment facilities are likely to find what we’ve read about his path toward tragedy to be eerily familiar. We know these kids. The ones who have difficulty meeting behavioral expectations at home and school, and often have difficulty meeting academic expectations as well. The ones on the social margins, who have difficulty being a part of the social fabric of a school. The kids who are bullied, ostracized. Their parents and teachers are often at a loss for how to help them, and not for lack of trying. These are the kids who end up disenfranchised, marginalized and alienated. My colleagues in schools tell me there have never been more kids like Nikolas Cruz. They tell me they’ve never seen such extreme behaviors in so many kids at such young ages.

It is tempting to focus on the final act of Nikolas Cruz’ path to tragedy, and – in a rational world, this should go without saying -- on the insanity that allowed him to acquire an AR-15 assault rifle. It is admirable that the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are taking a strong stand on the issue (don’t stop!) But if we want to stop the senseless tragedies, we need to do something about the factors that led Nikolas Cruz to want an assault rifle in the first place.

The bottom line is that, as a society, we aren’t very good at understanding and helping kids like Nikolas Cruz. And we aren’t very good at supporting the people who are charged with helping kids like Nikolas Cruz. Our schools are symptomatic of these truths.

High-stakes testing hasn’t helped. Classroom teachers have always been among the most important socialization agents in our society. Even if a student was going home to a dysfunctional family, there was still at least a glimmer of hope for that kid if he or she was successful at school and had positive relationships with his or her teachers. But if you tell classroom teachers that their job performance and job security are going to be based solely on how their students perform on high-stakes tests, then classroom teachers are going to be pushed toward focusing solely on how their students perform on high-stakes tests. Standards are a wonderful thing, but kids like Nikolas Cruz lose out when standards become an obsession. Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania tells us that somewhere between 17 and 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first four years. That’s a signal. It’s telling us something. I’ve had many classroom teachers and administrators tell me that a lot of the humanity has been taken out of their jobs. We need to put the humanity back in.

Zero tolerance policies haven’t helped (in fact, the Zero Tolerance Task Force of the American Psychological Association tells us that zero tolerance policies have made things worse). Such policies focus exclusively on a student’s challenging behavior and apply an algorithm of punitive, adult-imposed consequences for those behaviors. But challenging behavior is simply a signal as well.  It communicates that a kid is struggling to meet certain social, behavioral, and academic expectations. If we simply focus on the signals – the behaviors – we overlook the problems that are causing those behaviors. We are far more helpful and productive when we’re trying to solve those problems than we are when we’re simply modifying the behaviors that are caused by those problems. Punitive interventions don’t solve those problems. Detentions don’t; nor do suspensions, expulsions, or paddling. Nor does arresting a kid at school and punting his problems to the courts.

And yet, depending on the size of a school, there are typically 10 or 20 or 30 students accounting for the vast majority of discipline referrals in each building. Public schools in the US dole out about 100,000 expulsions, 3 million out-of-school suspensions, 3 million in-school suspensions, and dozens of millions of detentions every school year. The fact that these numbers are so high and that these kids are accessing the school discipline program so frequently is proof that the school discipline program isn’t working. There are a variety of non-punitive, non-adversarial interventions that can change that; in many schools, those interventions aren’t being applied.

Some educators still cling to the mentality that all the problems of society have been unfairly dumped on schools and that schools should be focused primarily on academics. That mentality is obsolete, and it doesn’t help us respond effectively to the real problems facing our kids.  But, in an era of significant education budget cuts and overcrowded classrooms, are we providing educators with the support they need to be responsive? Many school systems have no choice but to operate on a “waiting to fail” model in which vulnerable students don’t receive the help they need until their difficulties become much harder to address.

Finally, those in the trenches are well aware of the very poor communication that frequently exists between the different caregivers involved in trying to help kids like Nikolas Cruz. Social service agencies, the police, the courts, schools, and parents frequently don’t share information with one another, often prevented from doing so by the bounds of confidentiality. Thus, the left hand frequently has no idea what the right hand is doing. When the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, kids slip through the cracks.

By the way, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that it’s not just kids like Nikolas Cruz who are suffering. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 have at least one major depressive episode every year, and more than 2 million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily functioning. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 30% of girls and 20% of boys -- totaling 6.3 million teens -- have had an anxiety disorder. Rates of suicide and suicide attempts among middle and high-school students have never been higher. The seams are fraying.

Nikolas Cruz’ journey toward a lifetime behind bars or the death penalty has entered its final chapter. The anguish of those so tragically and needlessly affected by his actions is only beginning. Nikolas Cruz has provided us with another stark reminder of the fact that when we lose kids like him, we all lose.

Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.
February 16, 2018

My sister-in-law, Donna Ragland-Greene, has written a poem about the Parkland here to read it.