PARKLAND, Fla. — The suspected gunman in Wednesday's fatal attack at a Florida high school is a former student who teachers and former classmates say had an angry disposition that led to him being expelled and flagged as a danger on school grounds.
At one point, the former student had been listed by school administrators as a potential threat — particularly if he was carrying a backpack on campus.
The 19-year-old suspect was identified as Nikolas Cruz by the Broward County Sheriff's office. Cruz, whose first name also appears as Nicolas in some official records, was arrested Wednesday a short distance away from the school near a home, after leaving 17 dead in the afternoon attack.
The official said the killer used a military-style rifle, and that students apparently recognized the suspect during the assault. He was also equipped with a gas mask and smoke grenades, police said.
Cruz had been expelled and did not graduate from the school, according to police. He had previously attracted so much concern that school administrators banned him from campus, said Jim Gard, a math teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel confirmed that Cruz was a student at the school at one time, but was not at the time of the shooting.
Israel said the shooter was outside and inside the school at points during the attack.
Cruz' former classmates say he had a hot temper and a history of making dark, gun-related jokes.
As friends hiding from the shooter sent photos and videos over Snapchat to 19-year-old Jillian Davis, she started to recognize the man her friends described.
The shooter she saw in photos was Cruz, she said, a classmate who participated in Davis’s ninth grade JROTC group.
She recalled him as withdrawn and having "a lot of anger management issues."
"Finding out it was him makes a lot of sense now,” Davis said.
Cruz would joke about shooting people or shooting up establishments, she added. At the time, she thought it was normal, violent teenage jokes. Cruz would also talk a lot about having guns and using them in different situations, she said.
Joe Melita, former head of the Professional Standards & Special Investigative Unit at Broward County Public Schools, said students at Douglas High appeared to be evacuating classes after someone pulled the fire alarm when shots rang out and students were told to shelter in place.
There may also have been smoke bombs involved, school district security officials told him. He said several district security officials knew of the shooter. “They were familiar with who the young man was,” said Melita, now a visiting professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton.
Gard said the former student had been aggressive toward other students.
“We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” Gard told the Miami Herald. “There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus.”
Gard, who taught the student, said he believes the school administration sent out an email warning teachers that the student had made threats against others in the past, the Herald reported.
Another student interviewed on the scene by local television station Channel 7 said the student had guns at home.
Gard described chaos at the scene of the shooting Wednesday. “Six kids ran back into my room, and I locked the door, turned out the lights and had the kids go to the back of the room,” Gard said.
“Within a minute a code red was announced,” Gard added, referring to the school code for a lockdown.
“I told the kids to hang in there, it may still be a drill.”
Caesar Figueroa said he was one of the first parents to arrive at the school, seeking his 16-year-old daughter after hearing reports of gunfire.
Students were running out into the streets as SWAT team members swarmed in. “It was crazy and my daughter wasn’t answering her phone,” he said.
According to Figueroa, she texted him that she was hidden in a school closet with friends after she heard gunshots.
Schools in the Broward district typically have one or two school resource officers, typically Broward County Sheriff deputies who are armed and always on campus. Schools also employ campus monitors, who patrol the halls with walkie talkies but are not armed, and a security specialist, usually a retired sheriff’s department employee who helps the school plan and maintain its security protocols but is not armed. Melita said he wasn’t specifically familiar with Douglas High’s security setup.
Since heading up security at Broward schools in 2000, Melita said he directed schools to implement shelter-in-place plans and practice several drills a years, in collaboration with local police and fire departments. Melita underwent training by the U.S. Secret Service and implemented many of the lessons into district-wide plans, including implementing a single-point-of-entry in schools and driver license scans for visitors. The plan is not always full-proof, he said.
“If someone wants to get in, they’re going to get in,” Melita said. “You just have to make it as hard as possible for them.”
Student Daniel Huerfano said he recognized Cruz from an Instagram photo in which Cruz had posed with a gun in front of his face. He recalled that Cruz was shy when he attended the school and remembered seeing him walk around with his lunch bag.
Cruz “was that weird kid that you see … like a loner,” he said.