The teen’s text messages weren’t about a party or music or tests. They were about death. And murder.
“I actually wanted to be a school shooter,” the 17-year-old boy confided to a classmate in Winter Haven, in central Florida. “I just wanted to hurt other people like they did to me. … I actually had the damn weapon in school.”
The two commiserated about being depressed and bullied. He said he had nothing to lose and plotted to shoot classmates during their lunch hour. He ultimately was arrested.
“I need help,” he told his classmate. “I’m messed up in the brain.”
The words were straightforward, simple and harrowing. And surprisingly common.
Florida’s schools are filled with young people slinging murderous threats at classmates and teachers. Although some threats are the idle words of indiscreet adolescents, a disturbing number come from mentally impaired children who are fixated on violence and have access to guns, the South Florida Sun Sentinel found.
In an eight-month investigation, the Sun Sentinel examined the question that has weighed on parents since a disturbed teenager killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018: How many other children like the shooter are walking the halls of our schools?
A frightening number, the newspaper found.
The Sun Sentinel pored over court cases in 10 major Florida counties, from Miami to the Panhandle, and found more than 100 tormented youths, most of them threatening to murder teachers or fellow students.
A Broward County eighth grader, who worried he had multiple personalities, vowed to kill half the school, according to a police affidavit. The boy kept a notebook with a countdown to “death day.”
A 14-year-old girl in Seminole County, in central Florida, took pride in being able to name the most infamous school shooters and wrote in her journal that she was saving money “to get a GOOD gun.”
A “voice” instructed one Miami-Dade 16-year-old to kill people. And, in still another instance, a 16-year-old Pinellas County student asked a classmate: “Do you want to know how it feels to kill somebody?”
The details are buried in court cases filed to prevent these young people from buying or possessing guns. Together, the cases illustrate the depth of mental illness and despair raging through today’s young people, a picture generally shielded by privacy laws and concealed from other parents.
The cases were filed under Florida’s new Red Flag law, approved after the Parkland shooting. The law empowers judges to issue risk protection orders to disarm people who appear on the verge of suicide or murder. The orders are used primarily against adults. The Sun Sentinel is the first news outlet to isolate cases involving children and teens, to better understand the risks facing young people and the monumental job of making schools safe.
Page after page of children’s school journals, social media postings and affidavits from those who know them best reveal dozens of students with the same traits as Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz: emotionally disturbed, tormented by mental disorders, lacking the proper medication or therapies, obsessed with death, and nursing a dark grudge against teachers or classmates.
The Sun Sentinel reviewed 100 risk protection orders filed from March 2018 through August 2019 against people 19 or younger.
• In more than half the cases, children had access to guns at home, the records show. Some families had assault weapons in their homes, and some children posed on social media with handguns or other weapons. In one instance, a Volusia County middle schooler and his buddy made a video posing with an assault weapon and bullets they got from under his parent’s bed.
A mentally ill 12-year-old in Miami-Dade posted a picture on Snapchat with a gun, threatening to kill “the people who snitched on me.” In his beachfront condo, his father had three handguns, a Beretta shotgun, an AR-15, an AK-style assault rifle, ammunition and speed loaders.
• Before making deadly threats, children in at least a quarter of the cases had committed violent acts in the past. One boy beat a random man with a hammer. Another punched his school principal in the face. A middle schooler sexually assaulted a 7-year-old. Still another committed armed robbery.
• In more than a third of the cases reviewed by the Sun Sentinel, the children claimed they wanted to die. Kids cut themselves and envisioned murder-suicides. Two girls south of Lakeland, ages 11 and 12, drew up plans to kill multiple students because they wanted to die and be with Satan. They brought knives, scissors and a pizza cutter to school, hid in the restroom and waited for their prey — smaller kids they could overpower. Among their text messages: “We shouldn’t have met each other lol. Now Death is near.” They were arrested.
In addition to the protection orders, more and more children and teens are being arrested for making written threats to kill, according to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Police made 293 such arrests in 2018 alone. A decade earlier, there were 32.
Arrests for written threats to kill (19 and younger)
The Sun Sentinel is not publishing the names of the mentally troubled young people because of their age. But community leaders say the details confirm a need for a sustained and comprehensive education and mental health campaign to dissuade young people from using threats of lethal violence as their go-to solution to anger, frustration, bullying or hopelessness.
The cases also demonstrate the enormous burden educators and police have in determining who is serious and has the means to carry out an attack — and who is just engaging in adolescent foolishness.
“We can’t tell the difference. And words matter,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. “So we’re taking every threat as a serious threat.”
Authorities can’t be wrong. The stakes are too high.
Sweeping mental illness
In nearly half of the cases reviewed by the Sun Sentinel, the children who made the threats had disorders that affected their emotions and behaviors. Many had past histories of psychiatric hospitalizations.
They carried various labels, sometimes multiple ones: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anger issues, manic depressive disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, delusions, anxiety, conduct disorder and intellectual disorders.
The kids attended all types of schools: public, private, charter and others.
One mentally troubled boy had a history of murderous threats and violence. Several kids in Spanish class heard the 17-year-old say he was going to shoot up his school in Lakeland. When police responded, the student barraged the police officer with racist and vulgar language. Other students documented what they heard. “At least once a week he makes a ‘joke’ about shooting up the school,” one student wrote in an affidavit. According to a police affidavit, the youth spent 46 weeks in a psychiatric unit in 2015. Although his dad told police his son is “capable of being violent enough that it would make the news,” the judge was not convinced and denied the petition to keep him away from guns.
In Jacksonville, another 17-year-old threatened a shooting at a public magnet school. The teen suffered from a history of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia. He was homeless and had been expelled from school for fighting, before posting threats a few months later against his former school. He had a history of threatening to kill people.
“It will be the best murder suicide of all school shootings,” he wrote to a friend on the Snapchat social media app.
Often children in Florida are taken from schools straight to psychiatric hospitals for evaluation, under the state’s Baker Act, which allows people to be held up to 72 hours in a locked ward if they appear intent on hurting themselves or others.
From 2002 to 2018, the number of times the Baker Act was used for children increased by 141%, according to the University of South Florida, which tracks the figures. That dramatically outpaced the rising population of young people, which increased by only 13% during that time.
Baker Act use per 100k children
Of the children hospitalized in 2018, most were suicidal. But one in four wanted to kill someone else, too.
A Secret Service study released in July found that two-thirds of the attackers in recent mass shootings exhibited symptoms of mental illness, though many of them had not been diagnosed or treated.
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The records examined by the Sun Sentinel showed instances, too, where children were clearly ill but either refused treatment or were unable to access the right kind of help.
An 18-year-old in Coral Springs hit his father with a chair in early 2019, charged at him with a shovel and vowed to get gasoline and set the house on fire. He was arrested. His dad told police the teen had mood swings but refused mental health treatment.
A few months later, while taking a college entrance exam at Coral Glades High, that teen became irate at the test proctor, pushed over chairs, hurled racial insults at a security guard and shouted: “Just you wait. … I’m gonna come back and shoot up the school and kill everyone.” He was arrested again.
In another case, in Hillsborough County, a mentally ill teen turned to a popular online forum for advice to stop his homicidal thoughts, despite having a therapist. “Almost every day I wake up wanting to kill,” he wrote. “Usually it’s a person that has wronged me but sometimes I just want to kill anyone. Sometimes when I don’t wake up wanting to kill I get the urge throughout the day. I don’t want to end up committing murder but I don’t know how to stop it. Please help. … I would seek help but I’m still in high school.”
Not long ago, the Broward school district analyzed its data and found that 75 students last school year had accumulated 100 or more disciplinary incidents — each — over their academic careers. Of those, slightly more than half were students with a behavioral disability.
The other half, experts said, were likely to have some disorder that was not properly identified or handled.
The shockingly young
The graphic threat of mass shootings pervades even elementary schools, where the youngest children quickly get a darker education than their parents expected, the Sun Sentinel found.
In a childlike scrawl, an 8-year-old boy in Winter Haven gave a signed affidavit saying that a girl told him to “shut your mouth,” and when he refused to stop talking, she told him: “I’m gonna kill you with a gun.”
In Lakeland last year, a 9-year-old boy threatened to kill two classmates and his parents, court records state. He said he had a gun in his book bag and showed another student a 9 mm bullet he said he had found on the side of a road.
“He showed me the bullet, it was silver,” another child wrote in a police affidavit.
The new reality has police officers across Florida taking sworn testimony from baby-faced witnesses and suspects.
A 12-year-old in Fort Lauderdale told police he had a voice in his head giving him orders. He had threatened to shoot up his school, prompting a Code Red lockdown when he fired a realistic-looking BB gun at a school employee. She thought she was going to die that day, she told police.
“Do you know what a detective is?” police asked the sixth-grader in a chilly interrogation room.
“A guy who looks for clues?” he replied.
“You have the right to remain silent and to refuse to answer questions,” the detective went on. “Do you understand that? What does that mean?”
“That means I don’t have to talk if I don’t want to?” he answered.
The boy said he didn’t know his address, or even what state he lives in. He said he was cold and hungry.
Guns at the ready
More than half of the young people identified by the Sun Sentinel had access to guns or other serious weapons, typically in their own homes. The weapons most often belonged to their parents, grandparents, uncles and other family members.
In a few cases involving young adults, the guns were their own. After Parkland, lawmakers in Florida raised the age to buy any gun from 18 to 21. Children of any age, however, can use guns while hunting or target shooting. Those under 16 must be supervised by an adult.
In Orlando, police at the University of Central Florida arrested a 19-year-old who had a machine gun in his car. He had altered an AR-15 to make it a fully automatic rifle, using a kit he bought online. Florida law generally prohibits people from having a working machine gun.
Questioned by police, the university student “slowly began to psychologically unravel in front of investigators,” records say.
He talked of Hitler, failing Calculus 2 and keeping his emotions pent up.
On the petition for a court order banning him from having guns, police cited his fascination with weapons, thoughts of suicide, failing grades, lack of friends, anger issues, access to weapons and tactical training from the ROTC. Authorities also wrote that the teen considered himself an anarchist.
In Polk County, a 16-year-old posted a selfie on Instagram wearing a black hoodie, gas mask and tactical vest. He was holding an AR-15 in a gloved hand, pointing it up to the ceiling like a terrorist. His face wasn’t visible.
He bragged to classmates at his high school about having bombs at home and boasted “he was not afraid to shoot the school up,” according to a report written by the school resource officer.
The teen had an arsenal at his disposal. To take the selfie, he told police, he took the key to his dad’s gun safe, while his dad was sleeping. The youth told a detective he also had his own gun safe in his bedroom, where he keeps a hunting rifle.
His father surrendered 18 weapons to police, including an AR-15, the type of rifle used in the Parkland massacre. The boy’s mother later texted police claiming the father did not hand over all of his guns, hiding some under couch cushions and in walls, the police affidavit states. During a subsequent search, police found and seized additional ammunition in the home but no guns, according to a July 2018 judicial order summarizing a hearing on the matter.
In still another case, a 14-year-old boy in central Florida who had been hospitalized in the past for trying to cut his wrist was found with a pistol in his waistband at his school, a police affidavit states. His explanation: He stole the gun from his grandfather. His mom and brother are convicted felons and can’t have firearms so “his mother gave him the pistol back and told him to hide it,” the record states. He told police he didn’t intend to use the gun on school grounds, which is why it was unloaded, he said. Police found ammo — in his pocket.
Ann Siegel, a Florida attorney who advocates for the rights of mentally ill children, said adults must act more responsibly. “I don’t think children should have access to guns,” she said.“I think if you’re an adult and you have a gun, then it’s on you to make sure it’s secured in a way and manner that a child can’t ever gain access to it.”
Florida’s risk protection law does not require people to relinquish their firearms to police. They can transfer their guns to a trusted friend or relative, who must keep them away from the accused.
“A risk protection order is simply this: It’s a cooling-off period,” said Grady Judd, the Polk County sheriff. “It’s not the government seizing your firearms.”
Some parents refuse to relinquish their guns.
The father of a mentally ill teen who brought a gun to Coral Springs High in 2016 promised authorities he’d lock his guns in a safe, away from his son.
But earlier this year, the teen found the safe’s combination written on a piece of paper, retrieved an AR-15 and posted pictures of himself with it on Instagram, under the user name “actuallythegrimreaper.” Police arrested him in June of this year for violating a court order not to possess guns.
Court records show that some children draw inspiration from past school shooters. In at least a dozen cases, children referenced Parkland or the Columbine murderers.
There are “True Crime Communities” on the social media site Tumblr, for example, where people express admiration and fascination for serial killers. These enthusiasts included an 18-year-old Broward County girl.
Using the Tumblr screen name “crazystalkerbitch,” she professed adoration for Columbine High shooter Eric Harris. A behavior specialist at the school asked police to investigate the account. They found that the girl searched online for firearms, especially shotguns and how to make a bomb, and she admitted that she dreamed of a school shooting and killing a lot of people, court records state.
The teen was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric observation and authorities sought a risk protection order against her.
But her family hired a lawyer who successfully fought it by arguing that the words on Tumblr were not threats but “dramatic expressions of teenage frustration and anxiety.”
Online troves of school shooter lore, documents, diaries and details attract followers who are misfits, children who are bullied and the socially awkward.
A 14-year-old depressed and suicidal girl in a small town northeast of Orlando kept journals with photos and drawings of past school shooters. She told a physician she had researched Columbine and more recent shootings and wanted to know what it would be like to carry out an attack.
“There is still that part of me who wants to slaughter hundreds and cause mass panic and destruction!” she wrote in her journal.
In a 2018 case, a University of Central Florida student posted on Reddit: “Cruz is a hero,” referring to the Parkland shooter. The UCF student told authorities he’d had urges to commit a mass shooting since his sophomore year of high school in 2014 but didn’t have the courage “yet.”
All it would take, he suggested, would be a significant life event, such as a job loss or breakup. Then, he said, he’d target his former middle school.
Parents of children with behavioral disorders caution that most kids do not actually intend to kill; they just have no impulse control. No filter. They get upset and blurt out things they don’t mean.
Adults recognize that kids say stupid things. But what if one of them means it? What if one of them is the next Nikolas Cruz?
Since Parkland, police, mental health therapists and school officials are being extra cautious.
Last year, a Broward youth at Northeast High posted photos on Instagram of himself holding two guns with the caption: “Can’t wait to try them out.” A counselor who worked with him at a shelter for runaways and troubled kids told police the teen had similarities to Nikolas Cruz. He was sent for psychiatric evaluation.
The teacher of a Seminole County teen had that concern, too.
“In light of new information regarding the most recent school shooting, it seems like facebook/Instagram pages with guns and Nazi references are a correlation in ties that bind recent school shooters,” the teacher noted, saying she was concerned for the student’s well-being, “as well as the safety of our school.”
According to the risk protection order, the teen sent a Snapchat video to a classmate warning her not to go to school because he planned to punish his ex-girlfriends and school bullies. The teen said he could relate to school shooters and had made such threats more times than he could count, starting when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred in 2012. He referenced that tragedy by its exact date, police noted. They arrested him.
Since Sandy Hook and Parkland, there have been countless academic studies and blue-ribbon commissions and task forces and workshops and hearings about the shooters — how they became who they are and did what they did.
Early warning signs, though, have not varied much in the two decades since the Florida Senate commissioned a report by the Task Force on School Safety. It was commissioned in the aftermath of the Columbine shooting.
The signs then, as today, included children who habitually make violent threats; display serious disciplinary problems; enjoy few friends or none at all; abuse animals; obsess over weapons; bully others; favor violent TV shows, video games, movies or music; suffer frequent depression; threaten or attempt suicide; and break down in tantrums and uncontrollable anger.
Parents often search in vain for the right help for their child. Some have no hope of avoiding a terrible ending.
In Duval County, in northeast Florida, the mother of a 13-year-old boy who threatened to kill her told police she wasn’t afraid of him but did believe he “will kill someone eventually.”
The mentally ill teen was prevented from returning to his elementary school after he called his teacher at home and told her boyfriend he’d “beat his ass” and “had shooters on standby.”
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, in its most recent report to the governor, urged a better system of mental health care in Florida for children and adults.
Most kids are able to receive some services from a mental health professional at school; however, schools can’t meet all of the needs, the commission reported.
“Schools are not designed, staffed or funded to be any individual’s, or any family’s, ‘overall’ mental health provider. In many cases, besides its role of helping the student thrive academically, the school’s role is to refer the student and/or their family to community-based treatment services,” the commission wrote.
Those services are also lacking and hard for families to afford or access. As a result, children — and adults — are in and out of hospitals for psychiatric emergencies.
Nothing forces parents to ensure that a child follows a hospital’s recommendations after a Baker Act or faithfully takes prescribed medication, the commission found. The state child welfare system is considering more effective “wraparound services” after a person’s first Baker Act, the panel’s report states.
Meanwhile, some desperate parents are left to take desperate action.
The mother of a Pinellas County teen once tried to give him up at fire and police stations when he was 12. The law allows parents to turn over children they can’t care for — but only newborns.
The young person had been involuntarily hospitalized for psychiatric care 50 times, and his aggressive, impulsive behavior confounded his parents terribly. For years, he had said “he’s going to shoot up a school,” said Cathelene Harris, who isn’t the boy’s biological mother but is helping to raise him.
She said the youth, now 17, isn’t even allowed back at his church. Despite her efforts over many years, she said, he is not better.
“Every time you see a kid shooting up a school or church or crowd, everybody goes, ‘Oh, he had a mental problem.’ Well you should have done something about it. People are crying out for help and not getting it,” she said in an interview.“And that’s what I’ve been doing for years for [the boy], crying out.”
The father of one Duval County teen said he’d put every effort into helping his son, whom another family member described as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Brian Martin Sr. said his 18-year-old son needs 24-hour supervision to keep him from killing someone, or himself. As a local truck driver, Martin can’t give it.
“Just the other day he had a knife in his hand,” he said in an interview in June.“I asked him, ‘What are you going to do with that knife?’ He said, ‘I’m thinking about killing myself.’ ”
Another day, the boy swallowed a container of pills. Martin told him to vomit, and he complied.
“He said because he has no purpose on this earth and … he has no feeling for nobody around him,” Martin recounted.“How do you change a person like that?”
The Parkland shooter’s adoptive mother, who once called him “evil,” repeatedly pleaded for help, school records show. She insisted that “something is very wrong with him.”
He had years of help from counselors and doctors, his school records show. Yet none of the interventions stopped him.
One of Nikolas Cruz’s last Google searches was on Feb. 9, 2018, five days before he attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He looked for a therapist who could quiet his obsession with murder.