Dogan Akman

Killing fields in American education: High time to raise the key threshold key question and address it

On February 14, 2018 Nikolas Cruz , age 19, took his revenge for his expulsion on disciplinary grounds  from the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school in Broward County, Florida, by  getting hold of  a semi- automatic rifle, returning to the school  and wantonly killing a total of 17  people comprising  staff and students.

Since then, the relatives of the bereaved, the community at large, some politicians and national organisations reacted to this most tragic event, first by attacking the National Rifle Association and the legislative provisions that made it so easy for a teenager, to be able to get hold of such a lethal weapon, let alone one with a history of misadventures in school. And the demonstrations and protests against the gun laws continue to make making headlines in some school districts.

In response, the legislature of Florida, enacted legislation that increased the minimum age at which the semi-automatic weapons can be purchased and imposed upon the weapon sellers greater due diligence measures to determine   the suitability of the potential purchasers to acquire them. In the process, the legislature committed, what I predict to be, the major blunder to permit some staff and teachers to carry firearms on school grounds.

Some of the protest groups also turned their anger on the Sheriff of Broward County and his deputies’ for their alleged incompetence and cowardice in handling the situation while the killer freely went about his lethal business and then simply disappeared into the street crowd.

According to Bill Hager a member of the Florida legislature, the Sheriff’s office received at least two dozen appeals about the misbehaviour of Cruz and responded to these by effecting about three dozen visits to the Cruz residence.

Hager complained that while the Sheriff was fully aware of the danger to the community posed by Cruz, he chose to ignore it. To make matters worse, according to Hager, instead of taking law enforcement measures against Cruz, the Sheriff asked himself whether this was a matter best handled elsewhere rather than by his office.

In a further development, some students accused a teacher of being a coward rather than a hero he was thought to be, because he complied with existing school protocol and shut the students out of the classrooms.

There is however a threshold question which to my mind ought to have been publicly raised and pursued first and was not, ironically enough, save by the much maligned Sheriff  is: Why would a school board allow the school expel a student who obviously had serious mental/behavioural problems? seems to have been the only person who questioned himself as whether his Office was the appropriate place to handle Cruz’s problems.

The expulsion of troublesome students certainly is a convenient method of getting rid of the messy problem of having to deal with them.

But what about the welfare of the expelled student? What did the expulsion accomplish? It certainly did not benefit Cruz. Nor did it protect the well-being of the students entrusted to the school’s care from to the potential risk of being subjected to violence, potentially lethal violence.

In effect, what the school did was to throw Cruz into the embrace of his demons compounded by his abject sense of humiliation caused by the expulsion and forced him to deal with these with nowhere to go and no one to turn to, who would afford him the opportunity to get hold of himself and more importantly, to protect him from himself. Nor was there anyone around, and I do not mean a deputy sheriff, to constrain Cruz’s destructive impulses in a humane way until he recovered his fragile senses.

All the expulsion did was to cause Cruz to lose whatever mental balance and sense of right and wrong he had and to exact his vengeance on the “system” and on his fellow students, some of  whom , more likely than not,  treated him like a pariah, scorned him and in the process drove him nuts.

Of course, the solution to which he resorted to exact his vengeance is by no means an original one.

It is the same old behavioural pattern noted in a number of  cases witnessed over the years, where peremptory expulsions and summary firings seen as being unjust by the student and the dismissed employee, pushed them over the edge and led them to seek vengeance through wanton mass killings.

In the light of the historical precedents, one would have thought that by now school boards and school principals would know better than to resort to peremptory expulsions without providing due care  to the expelled student and proper safeguards to the other students, as well as faculty and staff.

It is trite but true and always worth keeping in mind that schools are not only for the well-behaved students with age appropriate skills and abilities or students whose dysfunctional behaviour is manageable.

Schools are for all the school age kids and teen-agers that, as a matter of right, are entitled to a proper and appropriate type of education. And these necessarily include the ones with behavioural and mental problems experienced by Cruz.

Surely, a school board’s legal mandate is to educate students, provide them with proper socialisation; help them devise appropriate tools and mechanisms of self-adaptation to deal effectively with personal challenges of various degrees of seriousness they face in and out of school, and in the process to insure their present and future well-being and welfare in school and beyond.

School boards do not expel students because they have learning disabilities or suffer from various types of physical or mental shortcomings that make them difficult to handle. Instead, they carry on with their socialisation and education by providing them with special schools, classes and programs.

To put it bluntly, to merely expel students because their behavioral problems, constitutes not only a fundamental breach of a school board’s paramount duty to provide proper education to all of them, and among these, particularly to the ones with troubling behavioural problems because these are the very ones that need to be retained in school and placed in a genuinely rehabilitative appropriate e.g. civilised educational environment more than the well-behaved ones.

Consequently, every school board, alone or in partnership with one or more adjoining boards must have the physical and educational resources necessary to deal with the Cruz(s) of the world.

Hopefully, the Cruz case will move the school boards and schools from their passive–aggressive response to students with disciplinary and related problems by affording them humane opportunities and effective educational solutions to their existential problems rather than expelling them.

It is of no benefit to anyone to increase the number of dead victims by living dead ones. In this instance, Cruz will, more likely than not, become one such living dead in the course of the long years of incarceration that await him.

About the Author
Doğan Akman immigrated to Canada with his family. In Canada, he taught university in sociology-criminology and social welfare policy and published articles in criminology journals After a stint as a Judge of the Provincial Court (criminal and family divisions) of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, he joined the Federal Department of Justice as a Crown prosecutor, and then moved over to the to civil litigation branch . Since his retirement he has published articles in Sephardic Horizons and e-Sefarad and in an anthology edited by Rifat Bali titled "This is My New Homeland" published in Istanbul.