A Challenge to Gov. Rick Scott and Republicans on Preventing Gun Violence

Florida Governor Rick Scott (soon likely to be a Republican Senate candidate) thinks he knows who is to blame for the Parkland shooting.

In a statement, Florida Gov. Rick Scott called on the FBI director to resign. “The FBI’s failure to take action against this killer is unacceptable,” he said. “… We constantly promote ‘see something, say something,’ and a courageous person did just that to the FBI. And the FBI failed to act. ‘See something, say something’ is an incredibly important tool and people must have confidence in the follow through from law enforcement. The FBI director needs to resign.”

He was responding to the fact that the FBI got a tip about Nikolas Cruz on January 5th suggesting that he was engaged in “erratic behavior, disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.”

But when it comes to interviewing and assessing Cruz, Florida’s Department of Children and Families did that a year ago.

The investigation was closed less than two months after it began, concluding that there were “no indicators to support the allegations of inadequate supervision or medical neglect.”

As someone who worked with troubled youth for over 30 years, I recognize the portrait painted by Cruz’s teachers when it comes to children who have been traumatized and subjected to abuse.

The real problems started at least as early as middle school and quickly intensified. There were the vocal outbursts, disturbing drawings of stick figures with guns, constant disciplinary issues. There were threatening statements written on his homework and scrap paper, including a reference to killing President Barack Obama, saying he should be “burned alive and eaten.”

Some teachers banned Nikolas Cruz from their classrooms at Westglades Middle School because of his erratic behavior. One teacher said he was barred from bringing a backpack to the school and that security personnel had to search him to ensure he didn’t have weapons. Teachers were very concerned about him and were working to get him help.

Here is the kind of problem his school ran into when trying to intervene:

According to federal data, the district had about 580 counselors during the 2015-2016 school year, or about one counselor for every 462 students. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.

The situation is even worse than that. The number of school counselors probably includes those who are assigned to help students get into college and those who spend the majority of their time assessing students for special education programs. Those who actually work with children and families to either provide or access services is little to none.

Whatever problems Cruz was having, neither Florida’s Department of Children and Families nor his school district were able to deal with them effectively. But Gov. Rick Scott wants to blame the FBI.

Republicans like Rick Scott are constantly trying to reduce government funding for schools, social services, and mental health care (the state has not expanded Medicaid under Obamacare). That means that children like Nikolas Cruz fall resoundingly through the holes in the safety net. It is worth noting that Florida has one of the worst records in the country for protecting children from abuse. On the other hand, up until recently, their school-to-prison pipeline was the largest in the nation. The state also became the literal face of children as young as 13 being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

What is it is Scott thinks the FBI should have done? Florida is not one of the five states in the country that have so-called “red flag laws,” which allow family members, schools, or law enforcement to ask judges to temporarily strip gun rights from people who show warning signs of violence. Is the suggestion that the FBI should have locked Cruz up for erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts?

Here is the challenge I would pose to Governor Scott and other Republicans like him: if you don’t want to adequately fund schools, social services, and mental health care to effectively intervene with young people like Cruz, then you have two options for preventing a shooting like the one last week in Parkland:

  1. Lock people up pre-emptively based on warning signs, or
  2. Do something to keep them from being able to buy a gun.

It seems to me that the second would infringe on our “freedoms” much less than the first.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.