PARKLAND, FL — Zachary Cruz had just come from getting his first driver’s license last week when he recalled his old life nearly a thousand miles away from his new home in Virginia. He wondered whether he might have done more to stop other children from bullying his older brother and if that in turn would have spared his emotionally troubled sibling such a dark path. His brother is the alleged Parkland school shooter who is now one of the most reviled figures in America.
“I understood what bullying did to my brother,” Cruz acknowledged in an exclusive interview with Patch. “I don’t want anyone to be isolated anymore.”
In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, children across America now share the same unsettling reality as schools reopen amid unprecedented security. Elementary school children strap gas masks over their faces in Miami Beach and practice walking with their hands above their heads. Elsewhere in the country, children will pass through metal detectors to learn the 3Rs behind bulletproof glass.
All of this preparation for the unimaginable has left parents, educators and law enforcement officials with more questions than answers. What children are most likely to become a threat to their schools and is there any way to prevent an emotionally disturbed child from crossing the line between innocence and evil?
Clear Link To Bullying
While there is no widely accepted profile of a school shooter, a growing number of experts say there is a clear link between bullying experiences like those suffered by Cruz’ brother and the very small minority of students who rise to the level of a school shooter. The victims of bullying are even more likely to suffer negative effects than their tormentors — including the very smallest percentage of children who become school shooters.
The shameful truth behind America’s school shooting crisis is that no one is born to be a school shooter and the phenomenon may be a preventable scourge to some extent. There is now a greater emphasis on anti-bullying campaigns, school resource officers, mediating student disagreements, allowing victims of online bullying to come forward in anonymous forums, identifying threats and finding help for the emotionally troubled who walk among our children. They eat with them in the cafeteria and play with them in the shadowy world of online gaming, chat rooms and even popular apps like Snapchat.
But there is no reliable method for profiling potential school shooters among the thousands of children who are bullied and those who bully others.
“Our research suggested that it is a mistake to spend much time trying to profile or predict who will become a school shooter,” declared sociologist Katherine S. Newman, who was tasked by Congress through the National Research Council to look into the phenomenon of school shooters. She went on to publish her findings in a widely cited 2004 book: “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.”
Fixation On Guns
Newman, recently named interim chancellor at the University of Massachusetts, told Patch her findings have held up with each new school shooting, including Parkland, where 17 students and faculty members were killed. The accused murderer was bullied, some believe by his own brother, Zachary Cruz, which was simply not the case, Cruz insisted.
His older brother was described as a bully with a fixation on guns who experienced great personal loss and family instability.
“They come sadly in all different varieties,” Newman conceded of school shooters. “Even the Secret Service, which is in the business of predicting rare events, came to the conclusion that it was impossible to predict or profile, which is why in the work we’ve done, we came to the view that the emphasis needs to be on interdicting information rather than on trying to find a needle in this enormous haystack.”
A joint report on school shootings prepared by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education found that school shootings are a rare but significant component of school violence in America.
“It is clear that other kinds of problems are far more common than the targeted attacks that have taken place in schools across this country,” the report concluded. “However, each school-based attack has had a tremendous and lasting effect on the school in which it occurred, the surrounding community, and the nation as a whole.”
Soul Searching To WIN
After much soul searching since the Florida tragedy, the brother of the accused Parkland shooter insists he did not bully his older brother, whose name is being withheld by Patch at the request of the families of Parkland victims.
“Me and my brother, it was more like a brotherly thing. I wasn’t the older brother. He was. But I was more like the older brother,” said Zachary Cruz, who recently launched an anti-bullying program through Verona, Virginia-based Nexus Services, and plans to embark on a speaking tour of schools across the United States once a court order stemming from his trespassing incident on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is lifted in September.
“I wouldn’t say I was a bully. But I was just harder — like I was harder on him. If he was acting out, like I would try to put him in place,” Zachary Cruz explained.
In hindsight, Zachary Cruz says he could have done more. “I think I could have stopped others from bullying him if I stood up for him,” he confided.
CEO Mike Donovan of Nexus Services, whose company is funding the anti-bullying program called WIN, says that he took up the cause partly because of his own experience with being bullied as a member of the LGBT community. “Sometimes, it’s about what we don’t do — the thing that you see that you don’t say something about, the interaction — the bullied kids you don’t stick up for,” said Donovan, whose company was under investigation by a federal agency and three states for its business practices related to undocumented immigrants, according to a report in The Washington Post. Donovan described those probes as “a few consumer protection inquiries” and said that his company will resist any attempt to harm its immigrant clients through the “Trump deportation machine.”
The anti-bullying program includes a 24-hour-a-day hotline that kids can call to report bullying issues.
“That hotline creates a process by which the school is notified. And then there’s a follow up with the school after seven days,” according to Donovan, who said that the program had already logged about four dozen calls prior to the start of the new school year over the summer months. “If the school doesn’t respond within another seven days, then it actually goes out for a legal referral to an attorney group. The idea is that within less than 30 days, if the school is notified of a crisis and if the school doesn’t do something, then someone on the outside is coming in to address the issue.”
Odd And Violent Behavior
Zachary Cruz said he knew almost immediately that he wanted to do something to help kids like his brother, who suffered from developmental issues and a history of odd and often violent behavior. “I could see that kids are falling through the cracks,” Cruz said. The WIN program plans to have in-school chapters around the country and volunteer coordinators in each state along with a small staff of paid employees who work out of the Nexus headquarters in Verona.
Former Parkland student Stephanie Bergeron recalled in a prior interview with Patch that she was tormented by the accused school shooter, so much so that she opted for homeschooling. His bullying was not limited to her, but also her sister, Jessica.
He targeted both girls on the bus to and from school as they grew up one block away, she explained.
“I cursed him out one time and he threatened to kill me,” the teen said in the earlier interview with Patch. “He was like, ‘Watch it. I’m going to kill you one day.'”
She told Patch that she’d sometimes see the accused shooter walking on her street and behind the homes of her friends. She never forgot the chilling warning he gave her the one time when she confronted him.
“He’s like: ‘You need to watch your back. I know where you live,'” she said as she carried her 4-year-old pet ferret, “Bear,” for emotional support outside Stoneman Douglas.
Aggression And Bullying
Such acts of aggression are not unusual for victims of bullying.
“There is certainly a link between bullying and aggression,” explained Mark R. Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “If you look at the profiles of the school shooters, many of them have been bullied, certainly not all of them. But virtually all of them have felt ostracized, rejected, on the sidelines of their peer groups, and often that is accompanied by having been bullied when you’re a low-status peripheral kid at school.”
Leary, who authored: “Teasing, rejection and violence: Case Studies Of The School Shootings,” examined 15 incidents around the country. He told Patch the problem of bullying is multi-faceted.
“You’ve got the rejection piece,” he explained. “That is the fact that I bully you and humiliate you publicly is a sign that I don’t hold you in any value, that I’m rejecting you and often I’m rejecting you in a public way. So, it has a rejection piece. It has a physical, intimidation piece — often actual physical violence.”
He noted that there is a social image component to bullying as well.
“Kids get shoved around on the playground and then there’s a social image piece of sort of the humiliation because bullying almost never happens in private,” Leary said. “It’s almost always in a public sphere.”
When people feel devalued, they have aggressive impulses, according to Leary.
“So, there’s no question that kids who walk around feeling rejected and ostracized have this simmering anger about it — and that’s true whether they feel rejected by their peers in general or whether … there was a single rejection by one person, like a romantic partner.”
Murky Online World
Clemson University’s Robin Kowalski, who worked with Leary on his study, said that increasingly, bullying happens in the murky world of online interactions, where it is not always clear that someone is being bullied and by whom. It is a place where few parents know their way around and where the victims of bullying fear they will lose online privileges by coming forward to ask for help.
“It’s the bullied victims who are most at risk for negative outcomes in general,” explained Kowalski, the author of “Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age.” “The negative outcomes being things like anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation … lower grades in school and damaged interpersonal relationships.”
To combat the crisis facing our schools, educators, parents and law enforcement officials are paying more attention than ever before to trying to identify students who need help. In a very real sense, they are attempting to identify powder kegs before they blow.
But this too is a double-edged sword.
“I think as soon as you start profiling somebody, then they get labeled as that,” Kowalski asserted, adding that she and Leary have agreed to collaborate on a new study on school shooters since speaking with Patch for this article. “We know in the psychological literature that labeling can be very bad. I think if you believe, for example, that somebody has a long-term history of bullying then by all means reach out to them to try to figure out what’s the source of the bullying.”
She said there are telltale signs that someone may be a victim of bullying.
“You’re going to see their grades drop. You’re going to see their isolation,” she said. “Again, rather than target them or profile them in terms of ‘They might blow up the school,’ profile them in terms of ‘Why might somebody think they might be a school shooter.’ Is it because they are isolated? Then look at them in terms of their isolation, not in terms of thinking that they might be a school shooter.”
Kowalski and other experts on bullying have been trying to develop smart apps that seek out certain phrases and send warnings to potential victims of bullying, even to the bullies themselves.
“It picks up on words and things like that that are indicative of cyber bullying,” she said. “And then it sends a message to the perpetrator: ‘Are you sure you want to send this message?’ If they go ahead and send it, the victim is immediately notified of who they can contact.”
One of the difficulties in identifying at-risk individuals is that bullying is so pervasive in schools across America.
“For a heck of a lot of us who were bullied in school, no matter how miserable we felt, we never behaved aggressively,” added Leary. “It’s only in a very, very small percentage of cases does it reach some explosive point.”
Shooters Suffer From Isolation
Asked if he believes there is a connection between bullying and school shootings, Zachary Cruz insists that bullying isolates students.
“I see a connection between isolated students and school shootings,” he stressed. One of the goals of his program is to empower students to help one another overcome the stresses of bullying with a sense of being part of a much larger community. “I think we can keep kids out of the shadows.”
Hopefully, he said, that will prevent a future Parkland.
Fascination With Guns
In his research, Leary concluded that school shooters had not only been rejected by other students, but that they had at least one of several other common traits.
“One was that they had psychological problems of other kinds that preexisted,” Leary said. “They had conduct disorder or impulsivity or they were depressed. They were struggling with other psychological issues and or, they had a fascination with guns.”
Children who have never touched a gun before are unlikely to pick one up, according to Leary. As a result, strengthening gun laws has been at the forefront of the efforts by David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzalez and other Parkland survivors.
“They have a fascination with guns, explosives, bombs, wars. They read about this stuff. They talk about it. They are really interested in that,” Leary observed of school shooters. “Many of them had a fascination with death, satanism, suicide — dark issues. Not that they had thought about suicide, but they were interested in really sorts of macabre sorts of things.”
Changing Social Reputations
Newman emphasized there is almost always information circulating about potential threats within the school community before tragedy strikes.
“Very often, the problem is they don’t have very many friends, but they are embedded in social networks of one kind or another,” Newman explained. “The whole purpose of a school shooting — which there is a purpose from their point of view — is to try to change their social reputation. They are often for many months in advance letting out signals and threats that if properly (caught), do offer some opportunity for intervention.”
In studying school shooters, Newman said that it was difficult to find useful patterns.
“They come from solid, stable families and dysfunctional families. They’re good students and bad students,” she shared. “They come from well-heeled neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Actually, the one thing they aren’t in general is they aren’t urban. They aren’t African American. They aren’t Hispanic. They tend to be white boys in rural or suburban communities for the most part, but that’s a huge population.”
Of greater importance than trying to profile school shooters, she said, children must feel comfortable coming forward when they discover possible threats. That’s not always easy since prior school shootings quickly disappear from their frame of reference as younger students move up in grades. Almost none of the younger students will have heard of Columbine and Newtown.
“In high schools, we need to make sure that there are trusted adults in the environment that young people will feel comfortable turning to when they hear threats that they can’t entirely interpret because they are not usually articulated in a way that is easily understood what they mean,” observed Newman, who believes that school resource officers are an important investment for communities to make.
“They will take it seriously. They will investigate and if there’s nothing to it, they’ll keep it quiet,” Newman explained. “If there is something to it, they’ll intervene. But it’s the interdiction of information about threats that seems to me to be the much more important strategy because the alternative of trying to predict just is frankly — I think it’s almost a waste of time.”
Open Discussions In Schools
Zachary Cruz says that students know what is going on in their schools, much more so than the adults around them. He wants his program to bring students together in a forum where they can openly discuss issues.
“It’s not just about bringing the kid into community, although that’s incredibly important,” added Donovan. “It starts there. But the ramifications of doing that are that you see things faster and sooner, and you’re able to make a difference sooner — before something horrible happens.”
In the case of his brother, Zachary Cruz hopes his program would have brought a different outcome.
“It would have offered him a friend. Someone who wouldn’t judge him,” he tells Patch.
Trouble Making Friends
That was something that came up frequently in their conversations.
“My brother used to talk about like he didn’t know how to make friends. It was very awkward for him. People made fun of him,” said Cruz. “I tried to give him advice. Where he should go, who he should try to talk to.”
Zachary Cruz described himself as a quiet, shy student who wasn’t comfortable answering questions and was often teased for it. But he stopped short of calling himself a victim of bullying.
His focus now is on making sure that no other brothers will have to wonder what they might have done differently.
“I want to stand up for kids who have this problem. I want to make a difference,” he added.
Watch video of an active shooter drill at the Fienberg-Fisher K8 Center in Miami Beach courtesy Miami Beach Police Department:
For information on Zachary Cruz’ program click here. For information on cyber bullying, visit Cyber Bully Help, the Cyberbullying Research Center, the FBI’s podcast on cyberbullying and the FBI Safe Online Surfing resource.
The Bully Menace Series
Throughout the year, Patch is looking at society’s roles and responsibilities in bullying and a child’s unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.
Do you have a story to tell? Are you concerned about how your local schools handle bullies and their victims?
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Earlier In This Series
Zachary Cruz (left) is embraced by Mike Donovan, CEO of Nexus Services, Inc., after Cruz was granted the ability to move to Virginia in May. Cruz is the brother of the accused Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gunman, who allegedly killed 17 students and staff members at the school on Feb. 14. (Photo by Amy Beth Bennett-Pool/Getty Images)