PARKLAND — Kevin Siegelbaum will never know if he could have helped Nikolas Cruz turn around his life, and in turn, save 17 others.
“But it would have been nice to have been given an opportunity to try,” he said.
Siegelbaum, 47, has taught special education at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for 2 1/2 years, helping those students whom other teachers cannot. Siegelbaum knows better than to give up on such students because he was once one, first discovering he had attention-deficit disorder, then dyslexia, but nonetheless working his way through college.
“That’s why I became a special educator, to help the kids who are lost,” he said.
Siegelbaum didn’t know Cruz, the 19-year-old former Douglas student who police say confessed to Wednesday’s mass shooting. But Siegelbaum knew Cruz was one of the lost ones.
“You heard about him,” Siegelbaum said. “He wasn’t in my classroom, so as long as he wasn’t around, I always felt safe.”
He knows it’s a paradox, alternately wishing to keep a safe distance from Cruz but also lamenting that he couldn’t pull in Cruz close enough to try to reach him.
“Normalcy,” Siegelbaum said. “Something our shooter needed — to feel normal, for who he is, for all of his issues.”
There remain questions of Cruz’s mental health. Siegelbaum said Douglas High’s faculty “did everything that they could to help this kid.” Instead, blame the emphasis on testing in education, which doesn’t allow teachers to identify and maximize each student’s particular skills and needs, he said.
“Everybody’s different,” Siegelbaum said. “We have our own normalcy. We don’t talk about that from an early age. We don’t teach them to feel confident. If you can’t write, (then) teach them how to give an oral report. What can you do? How can you express that knowledge? Feel comfortable, knowing that you can do something. … I’m supposed to teach algebra to kids who can’t identify numbers. Explain the logic to that.”
Siegelbaum said other special educators are equally frustrated.
“There’s a reason special-ed teachers burn out so much,” he said. “We care so much.”
Siegelbaum was not at Douglas on Wednesday when the carnage happened; he was on a personal leave day when he was jolted by a phone call.
“Turn on CNN,” a friend said.
Siegelbaum feared for his own students, who were on an opposite side of the campus.
“But I didn’t know that,” he said.
It hardly eased his pain. Moments before Thursday night’s candlelight vigil at Pine Trails Park, Siegelbaum approached the amphitheater stage, shutting out thousands of mourners behind him. He lit a candle, knelt and wept. Several times, it seemed Siegelbaum had composed himself, only to begin trembling and weeping again.
A few feet away, politicians were gathering to join clergy in leading the vigil. Once Siegelbaum composed himself, he said politicians are ignoring “the people that they serve.” He blamed national education leaders they appoint, saying, “Why are we being run by people who don’t understand education?
“It’s not about the gun. You want to take care of gun control? Let’s start with mental health, starting at an early age.”
Siegelbaum expects someone will eventually reach Cruz, even if it’s too late.
“This kid’s going to wake up one day and realize what he did,” Siegelbaum said. “He’s going to get help — hopefully.”