The Signs Were There: Lessons To Learn From the Parkland School Shooting

By Jack McCalmon, The McCalmon Group, Inc.

A 19-year-old former student, Nikolas Cruz, confessed to shooting at least 17 adults and students with an AR-15 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a school of 3,000 students in Parkland, Florida, a suburb of Miami. Katelyn Caralle "Nikolas Cruz admits to being the gunman in Florida school shooting" (Feb. 15, 2018).

It is believed that Cruz pulled the fire alarm to draw people out of the classroom and then opened fire. The speculation is that he did so to maximize casualties. Emanuella Grinberg and Eric Levenson "At least 17 dead in Florida School Shooting, law enforcement says" (Feb. 14, 2018).

The Broward County Sheriff's Office stated that the suspect concealed himself during the shooting by wearing a gas mask and then later blended with other students who rushed out of the school when law enforcement arrived. He was captured in a nearby neighborhood. Security cameras were able to verify Cruz as the shooter.  Hannah Winston, Julius Whigham II, Lulu Ramadan, and Alexandra Seltzer "Update: Broward sheriff says multiple students dead after high school shooting" (Feb. 14, 2018).

The school had a fire drill earlier in the day. When the alarm sounded in the afternoon (pulled by Cruz), many school participants stayed in the classroom, believing it was a false alarm. When gun shots were heard, the school implemented lockdown procedures with many students staying in locked rooms under their desks.

The background about Cruz is emerging and evolving. He lost his adoptive father to a heart attack a decade before the shooting. He recently lost his adoptive 68-year-old mother from pneumonia contracted as a result of the flu in November. She raised Cruz and his half-brother. After her death, Cruz went to live with a friend.

Cruz's attorney described Cruz, an adult, as a "broken child." Joe Capozzi and John Pacenti "Nikolas Cruz a 'broken child' who's sorry about shooting, attorneys say," (Feb. 15, 2018).

He was receiving treatment from a mental health clinic, but he had stopped going. He was showing signs of depression, according to the family that brought him into their home. Cruz was described as having emotional issues. Max Jaeger "Mom's flu death may have sent massacre suspect over the edge" (Feb. 15, 2018).

Other reports claim Cruz was hearing demon voices and his attorneys confirmed in court that he suffered from depression, autism, and other psychological problems. Jessica Finn "Florida gunman says 'demon voices' told him how to pull off school shooting and police reveal they were called out 39 TIMES to his family home before his mother died last year" (Feb. 16, 2018).

Reports are Cruz was expelled from school for bringing bullets in his backpack and/or fighting. One student stated that Cruz was expelled for fighting with the boyfriend of Cruz's ex-girlfriend. To date, school officials only state that he was expelled for disciplinary reasons. As a result, he enrolled into a GED program. One teacher stated that Cruz had threatened other students. Another source reports that the school administration had published an email stating that, should the former student appear on campus, school administrators should be notified immediately.

His social media profile showed a fascination with guns and knives. It also showed he was cruel toward animals. Neighbors had called the police regarding Cruz shooting chickens owned by a resident. He boasted of shooting rats with a BB gun. He took a dislike to pigs another family had as pets and sent a dog to attack them, according to one report.

Other students described him as "weird." One student stated that Cruz was prone to outbursts including cursing teachers. Another student described a recent encounter with Cruz as: "He would talk to me like he knew me, and it creeped me out . . . I always had a bad feeling about him." Kevin Sullivan, William Wan and Julie Tate "Fla. shooting suspect had a history of explosive anger, depression, killing animals" (Feb. 15, 2018).

Another student described Cruz as follows:

"All he would talk about is guns, knives and hunting," said a former classmate at the high school. "I can't say I was shocked. From past experiences, he seemed like the kind of kid who would do something like this." Connie Ogle, Nicholas Nehamas, and David Ovalle "Florida school shooting suspect was ex-student who was flagged as threat" (Feb. 14, 2018).

Cruz also legally owned an AR-15 rifle. The rifle was in a locked gun cabinet, but he had access to the weapon. Kevin Sullivan, William Wan and Julie Tate "Fla. shooting suspect had a history of explosive anger, depression, killing animals" (Feb. 15, 2018).

It is reported that local police were called to Cruz's home 39 times before his mother's death. Jessica Finn "Florida gunman says 'demon voices' told him how to pull off school shooting and police reveal they were called out 39 TIMES to his family home before his mother died last year" (Feb. 16, 2018).

Florida's state social service agency investigated claims about Cruz in 2016. The investigation discovered that Cruz wanted to buy a gun; that he was cutting himself; and that he had hate symbols on his backpack.  Nevertheless, it was determined that he was low risk, and the investigation file was closed in November 2016. Mark Berman "Florida social services investigated alleged school shooter Nikolas Cruz before rampage, knew he wanted to buy gun" (Feb. 17, 2018).

The FBI has now confirmed it was warned of Cruz in September and later in January, but the notice failed to be carried into actionable preventative measures. Allegedly Cruz posted a comment on a YouTube bloggers post: "I'm going to be a professional school shooter." According to the blogger, he contacted the FBI, and the FBI followed-up with him. According to the reports, the FBI did not share the information with local law enforcement. The FBI has acknowledged that it received a tip, but stated it had little other information on the suspect. Dakin Andone "FBI was warned about alleged shooter nearly 5 months ago, tipster says" (Feb. 15, 2018).

On January 5, 2018, the FBI's Public Access Line received a tip from a person close to Cruz that Cruz had erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts. The tip included speculation that Cruz wanted to "kill people" and the "potential of him conducting a school shooting". Mark Berman and Matt Zopotosky "The FBI said it failed to act on a tip warning of the suspected Florida school shooter's potential for violence" (Feb. 16, 2018).

Commentary by Jack McCalmon, Esq.

School shootings shock us to our very core. The Parkland shooting will be indistinguishable from other horrific school shooting tragedies, like Columbine and Sandy Hook, in its lasting harm to students, parents, schools, and the nation. 

Although a broken young adult, there is no excuse for what Nikolas Cruz did. He planned and indiscriminately committed mass murder just like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Adam Lanza. Despite the apparent negligence of others, he is the reason the tragedy happened. The fact is there are thousands of "broken" youth in our country who do not commit mass murder.

The question of how this tragedy could have been prevented remains, however. 

The signs all pointed to Cruz as a real and present danger to others. Unlike the murders at Columbine and Sandy Hook, school authorities and local law enforcement were aware Cruz was "at-risk" and violent; the FBI was even warned Cruz was a possible "school shooter" on a line partly created to help deter school shootings; and many of Cruz's classmates predicted Cruz would do something violent someday.

Yes, the Parkland shooting could and should have been prevented, especially considering what we know today; unfortunately, we are left now with evaluating how did so many preventative measures fail?

After Columbine, the FBI and other federal agencies turned their attention to evaluating and addressing threats to schools. When evaluating a potential threat, there are signs that the FBI has listed that help determine whether a student is able to carry out the threat. Cruz exhibited many of the FBI published signs, according to news reports:

  • Leaking to the blogger his aspirations to act violently;
  • Low tolerance and anger as evidenced by his outbursts at school and fighting;
  • Poor coping skills as evidenced by how other students reacted to him;
  • Failed love relationship as evidenced by the fight over a girlfriend;
  • Signs of depression as evidenced by the family he was living with;
  • Inappropriate humor as evidenced by some of his social media posts;
  • Lack of empathy for others as evidenced by his treatment of animals;
  • Alienation as evidenced by student reactions toward Cruz before the shooting as "weird"; and
  • Unusual interest in violence as evidenced by his social media posts.

As more reports surface about Cruz, it is likely that Cruz exhibited other signs established by the FBI as well.

A key component when evaluating student personalities that are high risk is the family dynamic. The loss of both parents, including the very recent loss of his mother, is a sign that Cruz was high-risk. Moreover, guns were permitted in the home of the family where he was staying, and Cruz had ready access to his weapon. It was also reported that Cruz's mother, before she died, did not set many limits on Cruz or his half-brother, another family dynamic that may indicate a high-risk. It is not known whether the family with whom he was staying was monitoring his mental health. Reports are he stopped taking his medication — and because he is an adult — the people with whom he was living would not be able to obtain that medical information.

A further indicator is Cruz's relationship with the school. He was expelled from the school. A student who is detached from the school environment is more likely to become violent then students who are troubled, but engaged, according to the FBI.

To date, Cruz is not reported to have ever made a direct or indirect threat against the school as of the date of this publication, although there are indications that he may have threatened classmates individually. His comment to the blogger would not qualify as a threat, but was simply a reference to school shootings, albeit a disturbing one. If he had made a threat against the school institution, then he might have been stopped before committing the murders.

According to the FBI, a "threat" includes the identity of the victims; the motive for the threat; planned method for carrying out the threat, such as date, time and place of the attack; and other concrete details.

The call to the FBI's tip line meets the definition of a threat. The FBI has acknowledged that fact and that protocol was not followed.  

Other interactions with Cruz, besides a direct or indirect threat or an outside tip to the FBI, could have exposed Cruz as high-risk.

When the school expelled Cruz for legitimate safety reasons, in hindsight, that expulsion cut off the communication between Cruz and the school that may have allowed an intervention. Cruz was seeking mental health treatment, but he stopped going and being an adult, no one was monitoring his health day-to-day or had access to his health care information.

The school had even issued a vague warning to teachers about Cruz in an email. Instead of a vague warning, the school should have had an established protocol that identified potentially violent ex-students and how to reach security personnel when such students return to campus unannounced, including immediately notifying local law enforcement.

Local police had Cruz on their radar and knew he was armed and potentially dangerous, but did not coordinate with the school to address Cruz as a potential risk to the school. 

Florida social services never followed up on its 2016 investigation. At the time, investigators felt Cruz was not a threat because his mother was engaged; he was enrolled at school; and he was receiving counseling. Had anyone followed-up with Cruz, they would have discovered that the three stabilizing influences that led to the "no threat" assessment in 2016 were absent from Cruz's life in 2018.

Finally, had a responsible adult recognized that Cruz's access to an assault weapon in his mental state was not appropriate, then the crime may have been avoided.

There are many occasions where a threat is made and schools can react to them appropriately to avoid a catastrophic act of violence.

After this tragedy, law enforcement leaders will have to reevaluate and refine the definition of a "threat" that balances civil liberties and the prevention of tragedies and review protocols that allowed a credible tip to be ignored. Redundancies are necessary to make sure that public safety policies are carried through in their entirety. Better communication among schools, mental health authorities, and local, state and federal law enforcement is crucial when addressing "at-risk" youth.

The McCalmon Group has published The Leadership2™ Guide: Assessing and Evaluating School Threats. This Guide is available at no cost to Platform subscribers.

Moreover, your Platform has on-demand training on how to prevent catastrophic acts of violence available for administrators, teachers and other school participants. The titles of the training are: "Truths (And Myths) Of Student Attack Prevention" and "Assessing and Evaluating Student Threats".

Your school may be eligible for the training at no additional cost.

Please re-visit your institutional commitment to training on this essential student safety core issue.

For more information regarding what is available to your school, please call The McCalmon Group, Inc. at 888.712.7667 or contact us at

Finally, your opinion is important to us. Please complete the opinion survey: