There are few things in Florida that have a more vital public interest than trying to understand how a school system dealt with a troubled child who would end up returning to his high school to commit a mass shooting.
The Broward County School Board commissioned such a report from the Collaborative Educational Network in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February.
The 70-page report on how the school district dealt with Nikolas Cruz was titled “Independent Review of ‘NC’s’ Educational Record.” It was completed on June 16 and released this month to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper.
Except large sections of the report were blacked out and deemed not fit for public knowledge.
Lawyers for Cruz had argued that the information would be prejudicial pre-trial publicity that might endanger their client’s ability to get a fair trial.
And lawyers for the Broward County Schools argued that educational records outlined in the report are shielded by federal and law from public disclosure without student or parental consent.
Both of these are flawed arguments.
The Parkland massacre has already entered the national bloodstream of public knowledge. The trial of Cruz will not be a whodunit. And if anything, a report that details the failings of the Broward County School system to deal with his demons will make him more, not less, sympathetic in a death-penalty case.
The real harm in the full disclosure of this report is to the Broward County School District, because the report notes that Cruz, who had been identified from pre-kindergarten as a problem child with emotional issues, was not accurately told of his options when he was kicked out of Stoneman Douglas.
He could have continued to receive special education services, the report revealed.
Cruz could have gone to a more therapeutic environment at the Cross Creek School for special education students, but the district “did not follow through by pursuing consent for evaluation or providing notice of refusal,” the report noted.
And so Cruz went 14 months without getting school counseling or services he could have received before he went on a killing rampage.
Blacking out this information had nothing to do with protecting Cruz. But it did protect the Broward County School District from criticism.
And the district lucked into a compliant judge, Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, to go along with its attempt to cut corners on the full story in the name of Cruz’ privacy.
Scherer released the report with its most critical findings hidden from view.
Except that was bungled too.
In releasing the heavily redacted report on a PDF computer file, all the words in the blacked out sections weren’t actually missing. They were simply covered up by a black box superimposed on the text.
And when that electronic document page is copied and then pasted onto a blank Microsoft Word document, all those once-hidden words under the black boxes become visible again.
So despite the judge’s intention, the whole report was released to the Sun-Sentinel, which posted the complete version of it online.
Judge Scherer considered this a violation of her order and entertained the school district’s motion to hold the newspaper reporters and their lawyer in contempt over the disclosure.
“From now on if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print, and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie and send them off to whoever I need to send to, to make sure that you all can’t somehow read what’s not supposed to be reported, then I’ll do that,” Scherer said from the bench.
That’s a short-sighted position.
Instead of standing up for the public’s right to know about an issue of vital importance — an issue that would be constructive to all the other school districts dealing with all the other potential problem children in their care — Scherer is making a stand for what, exactly?
Failing to get Cruz’ written permission to discuss his school record? Is that what’s really important here?
Is this all about the potential abuse of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974?
The judge should have never cowed to those who wanted to keep the public from knowing the full story here. And when the release of her order was bungled, she should have realized that news organizations can print anything obtained legally, including bungled redacted documents.
And no amount of posturing from the bench will change that or the First Amendment.
The move here isn’t to scold a newspaper over “what you are and are not permitted to print” directly after the newspaper printed something it was legally able to print.
It’s to look at the history here, with all its blemishes, and learn from it — not cover it up.