The families of victims of last year’s fatal Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., filed more than 20 wrongful death lawsuits in Broward County last week. The lawsuits name the Broward County School Board, Sheriff’s Office, former Sheriff’s Deputy and School Resource Officer Scot Peterson, former hall monitor Andrew Medina, and Henderson Behavioral Health Inc. as defendants.
The complaints accuse the Sheriff’s Office and Peterson, who hunkered down in a stairwell at the school for 48 minutes while the attack unfolded, of “failing to immediately enter, locate, and neutralize Nikolas Cruz, the shooter.” Medina is accused of willfully disregarding school board policy by not immediately calling a “code red.” One of Peterson’s attorneys, Joseph DiRuzzo, told NPR that the lawsuits lacked merit and that he would fight them vigorously.
Cruz, now 20, is in prison facing 17 counts of first-degree murder. He has offered to plead guilty if prosecutors take the death penalty off the table. The defense team cites his special education status, low IQ, and possible undiagnosed autism as important mitigating factors. But so far prosecutors have refused to rule out the death penalty.
The wrongful death lawsuits also take aim at the Broward County School Board and Henderson Behavioral Health Inc., where Cruz was a patient from the age of 11, for not doing more to protect the community. The clinic not only failed to treat his depression effectively, the suit claims, but also failed to diagnose psychopathic and sociopathic disorders and provided treatment that “exacerbated and fueled his depression” and “substantially contributed to causing his violent tendencies and behavior.”
But accurate diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders is notoriously challenging with adolescents. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, teens sometimes exhibit symptoms in ways that differ substantially from adults. They may also experience symptoms infrequently, making it difficult for even the most seasoned mental health professionals to differentiate between normal heightened teenage emotions and an actual underlying medical condition.
The plaintiffs say they have tried to work with the Broward County School Board for the last year to establish a fund for the families of the victims, and they are open to dropping the suits if a financial settlement can be reached. —L.E.