Delinquent Disability

by TOM MCLAUGHLIN February 28, 2018

 How was Nikolas Cruz able to buy a gun after so many reports to both school officials and law enforcement that he was "dangerous" and "about to blow"? The short answer is that even though Cruz had likely broken the law, he had no record. Why? Because schools and law enforcement cover up crimes by kids like Cruz in Florida and elsewhere. Why? Because it keeps budgets down and they get awards for doing it.

Juvenile delinquents aged 14-18 were my first students in 1975, but weren't called that. Under the Massachusetts' first-in-the-nation special ed law "juvenile delinquents" were re-labeled "emotionally disturbed." They had a "disability." That didn't make them any less delinquent, but it signaled a new approach with lots of tax dollars to implement it. The special ed bureaucracy was born and eventually grew into the national behemoth it is now.

My "disabled" students were habitually absent Mondays because they were being arraigned after getting arrested over the weekend for shoplifting, drug possession, breaking and entering, purse-snatching, and other crimes. When I asked if they were afraid of going to jail they said, "They can't do anything to me until I'm eighteen. I'll stop then." Massachusetts had closed all its county reform schools as part of its new approach. 

Special ed law gave my students a legal right to a free, appropriate education to "meet their needs" in the "least restrictive environment" no matter what the cost. Mine was a private day school with 100 students and 36 professional staff. Tuition was expensive, but not as costly as a residential school which would be the next step on the restrictive environment continuum. Those could cost $80,000 per year in 1980 dollars - much more now I'm sure.

At such prices, school systems kept residential placements to a minimum. My day school clearly wasn't "meeting their needs" if students were arrested so often, but "evaluation team" meetings were confidential, inclined to smooth things over with little or no oversight. Only rapists and murderers went to residential placement. The rest avoided punishment because they attended our special school, but unlike in today's Florida, their crimes were on record at least. 

In spite of all the money spent during my two years there, I saw little evidence of rehabilitation. After obtaining a graduate degree I became a special ed director for a Maine school district for another two years before going back to the classroom to teach history.

Years later a "disabled" boy came into my history class mid-year with a full-time aide assigned just to him. I knew his family and suspected the district was babysitting him to avoid the cost of residential placement. He reminded me of the worst delinquents I taught in Massachusetts and he didn't stay long. I wasn't told where he went or why. Later, he was the prime suspect in the murder of his father, was arrested with someone who slit the throat of a cab driver, and was jailed for assaulting a local woman in a home invasion. I don't know what he's doing now.

The "new approach" I saw forty years ago has "progressed" in Florida and probably explains why Nikolas Cruz could buy a gun., reported that schools and cops in Dade County and Broward County began covering up their crimes, including those by Trayvon Martin, allegedly to circumvent the "school-to-prison pipeline" for minority male students, It was supposed to remain confidential, but word leaked out. An Internal Affairs investigation didn't look into the cover-ups, only the leaks. Mainstream media gave that story a good leaving alone.

Then came federally-imposed quotas on how many minority students could be suspended during the Obama Administration which accelerated coverups of juvenile crime. According to "Initially the police were excusing misdemeanor behaviors. However, it didn't take long until felonies, even violent felonies (armed robberies, assaults and worse) were being excused." 

The Miami Herald reports that Nikolas Cruz was transferred six times in three years because of his extremely disruptive behavior. If my experience is any guide, it's likely the district was trying to cut costs. "Under federal [special ed] law, Nikolas Cruz had a right to a ‘free and appropriate' education at a public school near him. His classmates had a right to an education free of fear. Their rights often collided," said the Herald.
No kidding.

Some media erroneously reported Cruz was expelled. He wasn't. That is illegal for someone with a "disability." Cruz was sent back at Douglas High School and whatever he might have done remained confidential under federal law. Without a criminal record, he could pass an FBI background check and buy a gun because whatever crimes he may have committed would have been covered up by school resource officers - like the one who cowered outside as Cruz murdered his classmates. Contributing Editor Tom McLaughlin is a (now retired) history teacher and a regular weekly columnist for newspapers in Maine and New Hampshire. He writes about political and social issues, history, family, education and Radical Islam.  Email him at


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