President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday morning that neighbors and classmates should have reported 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz to authorities after he first exhibited disturbing behavior.
But many had done that — over and over and over again.
Cruz, accused of mowing down 17 people at his South Florida high school in one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings, had been barred from bringing a backpack to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School because he was threatening other students and, after repeated disciplinary run-ins, was finally expelled last year.
Neighbors say he harassed them and police were called to his house many times, the Sun-Sentinel reported. He had also been receiving mental health treatment, but stopped going to the clinic sometime last fall, according to The Washington Post.
Yet despite the fact that he was well known to local police, school and mental health officials, he legally purchased the AR-15 that he used to gun down his former classmates. Cruz slipped through the gaps in a dysfunctional mental health system and a gun background check setup not designed to stop mentally ill people who haven’t been incarcerated or court-ordered into treatment.
“You keep your eyes on those kids who become disconnected — you know, they’re out on the fringes,” said Broward County Mayor Beam Furr. “And as a teacher, you try to bring them in to the fold, so to speak, in one way or another.”
Federal law prohibits people who have been involuntarily committed for mental illness from buying guns, but that gives a pass to people like Cruz, who, according to media reports, had never been committed to a psychiatric facility or adjudicated by a court for a mental illness, but still exhibited signs of mental disorders.
Policy experts and lawmakers have tried reforming the background check system to include more people, but Trump’s reversal of an Obama-era regulation did the opposite. The rule had required the Social Security Administration to report anyone receiving disability insurance for a mental illness to the FBI’s background check system to prohibit them from purchasing a gun.
“He made it easier for the mentally ill to get guns,” D.J. Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., said of Trump.
Even when law enforcement officials are contacted about troubled students, their hands are often tied.
“In the work that I’ve done with law enforcement officers, they’re in a tough spot because they want to be helpful but can’t do much when laws haven’t been broken,” said Melissa Reeves, former president of the National Association of School Psychologists and an expert who assists schools in assessing potential threats. “I don’t know what law enforcement officers would’ve done.”
Reeves stressed that schools and communities have inadequate resources and the country’s mental health system is “broken.”
Schools are often an “easy target for blame,” she said. “They’re expected to do everything while their funding and resources are cut.”
Certainly red flags were missed. Last fall, a bail bondsman in Mississippi said he notified the FBI about an ominous comment left on a YouTube video he had posted about the bail bond industry — “’I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” But federal agents said they were unable to identify the author.
But even if they had, it can be difficult to get people with serious mental illness committed involuntarily, or into treatment if they don’t have a prior diagnosis or a recorded history of problems.
James Holmes, who was convicted of murdering 12 people in the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, also had never been committed to a mental health facility, though he sought counseling and classmates had raised concerns about him.
“Reporting people doesn’t guarantee they will receive treatment,” Jaffe said. “In this case, [Cruz] had been in treatment and he was allowed to go off. It is very tough to compel anyone who doesn’t have any background of incidents into mandated treatment. American law basically prevents treatment until after dangerousness.”
Cruz was receiving mental health treatment until last fall, but the nature of that treatment is unknown.
Getting care in a fragmented and resource-starved mental health system can also be an issue — especially for those lacking decent health insurance.
After other mass shootings, Trump has suggested the need for mental health reform. But just this week, for the second year in a row, his budget proposed deep cuts to the nation’s mental health programs and programs meant to help prevent crime in schools and assist them in recovery from tragedies.
He has also proposed slashing billions of dollars from other social safety nets like Medicaid, which millions of Americans rely on to get mental health treatment, and he’s pushed the repeal of Obamacare, which includes coverage protections for those with mental illness.
Public health experts say Trump’s budget proves the administration isn’t interested in investing in mental health programs, which have been underfunded for decades. The total federal budget for mental health treatment programs in the Health and Human Services Department’s budget is just over $1 billion.
“People have no idea how little investment there is in mental health. $1 billion doesn’t go far in an economy where there is a deficit of $1.6 trillion,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America. “We’re not even a rounding error anymore in terms of the new money they put into mental health.”
Gionfriddo said Cruz should have been given robust and consistent treatment long ago at the first signs of trouble.
Schools have a tendency to suspend or, in this case, expel kids with behavioral issues, he said, instead of recognizing the behavior as a symptom of a broader mental illness and connecting them to care.
“It’s symptomatic of the way the system is built,” he added. “It ignores kids with problems. Instead, they get expelled and we wait until there’s a behavioral manifestation of the illness before we do anything.”
Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie acknowledged that schools must prioritize mental health.
“Mental health issues in this country are growing and are a big challenge,” he said, “and it’s something that will need to be addressed within our school systems, as well as in the broader society to make sure these tragedies don’t continue.”
Since the shooting, Runcie said, students “have been reaching out to me … saying that now, now is the time for this country to have a real conversation on sensible gun control laws in this country.
“Our students are asking for that conversation,” he said. “And I hope we can get it done in this generation. But if we don’t, they will.”
Florida Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican, said that chamber is committed to increasing mental health funding for schools, pointing to $40 million in the Senate’s proposed budget aimed at providing mental health services, and making that a permanent component of the school funding formula.
Asked specifically if it were time to consider new regulations on semi-automatic firearms, Negron demurred.
“My focus is on making sure that lawful citizens who are obeying the law and are entitled to their constitutional rights … have appropriate access to firearms,” he said. “I think the key to me is making sure that individuals who have mental instabilities or other mental health issues, that they don’t have access to firearms, and that we are making the entrances to our schools and the halls and corridors as safe as we can.”
There is not yet an equivalent state House proposal.
That approach got a thumbs down from Gay Valimont, who leads the Florida chapter of Everytown for Gun Safety, a group seeking tighter gun control laws.
“We are heartbroken, but we are also done with thoughts and prayers,” she said as she rallied with about two dozen gun control advocates outside the state Capitol. “We are finished with thoughts and prayers. We are mad as hell, because everybody in this building has had the opportunity to change the gun culture in Florida and they have been negligent for the citizens of Florida.”
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