Students With Special Needs Face Suspicion After School Shooting
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, some students with disabilities are being taunted or callously pegged by others as being the next school shooter, parents and experts say.
“There’s been a lot of bullying going on in our schools,” said Kelly Busch, a South Florida advocate for children with autism.
School and mental health records show that Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 and wounded 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Valentine’s Day, was reported to have numerous conditions, including autism and severe behavioral and emotional problems.
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Slapping Cruz with a label of autism has increased the angst of parents of children with the disorder, who already struggle to foster acceptance and compassion for their children.
Experts say some people with autism, especially children, may find it hard to communicate or to control their emotions. They can experience “sensory overload,” or become frustrated when unable to express themselves and may become aggressive or irritated. Their outbursts — such as throwing a chair — occur in flashes, however, and typically are minor and over quickly. Premeditated acts of violence are not a symptom of autism.
Yet Valerie Herskowitz, of Jupiter, who has a grown son with autism, said she’s heard from parents that some students have asked children on the spectrum: “Are you going to kill us?”
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said he’s seen no data or internal information showing any spike in bullying or unease regarding students with developmental disabilities.
“If it’s true that there are students in the school district being stigmatized because of their special need or disability, that’s something we’re not going to tolerate, and we’re going to take appropriate action to address,” Runcie said.
“I’m looking forward to hearing from our parents. Certainly we’ll do our own review based on what we hear from them about what is going on in the schools.”
The desire by advocates to clarify publicly that people with autism are not inherently violent is a direct response to reports that Cruz, now 19, had autism.
His mother told state social service workers in September 2016, shortly after he turned 18, that Nikolas had autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which makes it difficult for people to pay attention and control impulsive behaviors, according to records from the Department of Children and Families.
An earlier 2014 school psychiatric report stated that Cruz struggled with anxiety, behavioral and socio-emotional problems, and was openly defiant of authority figures. It cited the need to rule out “pervasive developmental disorder,” which is an autism spectrum disorder.
His mother, who died only months before the shooting, also told Broward sheriff’s deputies that Nikolas had an obsessive-compulsive disorder and anger issues.
“He had many issues beyond autism,” and likely was a “very complex psychiatric case,” said Michael Alessandri, executive director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, which provides services to people with autism and resources for school districts.
Often when children have many and varying symptoms and numerous diagnoses it indicates that professionals are “not quite sure what the kid really has,” said Alessandri.
“It’s not about autism. It’s about a boy with a clearly demented mind, a lot of anger and a lot of horrible life circumstances — who harmed lots of people.”
Still, a few parents in South Florida have told the University of Miami center since the shooting that peers are bullying their children and that even some school officials are now reacting differently to certain behaviors than they had in the past, Alessandri said.
After the shooting a few children with autism across South Florida, Alessandri said, have been suspended and at least one was expelled from a private school for “a perceived threat” based on a wrestling video he made.
One child with autism, knowing Cruz possibly also had autism, was trying to process the shared condition and deal with his own anxiety over it by talking a little too much about the shooting — making his classmates and school personnel nervous, Alessandri said. The boy’s mother told Alessandri that school officials recommended he leave school temporarily to get care and treatment.
The day after the Parkland shooting, the Autism Society, a national advocacy group, released a statement saying: “No reliable research has found that a person who is autistic is more likely to commit violence than a person without an autism diagnosis. In fact, existing research finds that autistic individuals are more likely to be victims of violence than those without an autism diagnosis.”
The society put out a similar statement after the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting because that gunman, Adam Lanza, was diagnosed in his early teens with Asperger’s syndrome.
About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is more prevalent in boys than in girls.
Attorney Jeff Kasky of Delray Beach, whose son Cameron co-founded the #NeverAgain movement, has another child, Holden, who has autism. Both boys attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and were hiding in a classroom in the freshman building during the shooting.
Later with his dad, Holden made a video discussing the shooting and his reaction to police who were shouting and “had a bunch of guns” and flashlights pointed at him and other students. The video urges law enforcement to take special care when responding to emergencies involving people with autism or other developmental disabilities, who may not properly respond to commands.
It’s been viewed on YouTube more than 80,000 times and 2.3 million times on Facebook.
The video notes that Cruz reportedly had autism, but autism did not lead to the shooting.
“Autism is not a violent disorder,” Jeff Kasky says in the video. “It’s quite the opposite; the things that caused violence in this person were all the other things that were going on in his sick mind.”
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