My first interaction with Nikolas Cruz happened when I was in seventh grade. I was eating lunch with my friends, most likely discussing One Direction or Ed Sheeran, when a sudden pain consumed my lower back. The sheer force of the blow knocked the wind out of my 90-pound body; tears stung my eyes. I turned around and saw him, smirking. I had never seen this boy before, but I would never forget his face. His eyes were lit up with a sick, twisted joy as he watched me cry.
The apple that he had thrown at my back rolled slowly along the tiled floor. A cafeteria aide ran to ask if I was okay. I don’t remember if he was confronted for his actions, but in my 12-year-old naïveté, I trusted that the adults around me would take care of the situation.
Five years later, after hiding in a dark closet at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I would discover just how wrong I was.
I am not writing this piece to malign Cruz any more than he already has been. I have faith that history will condemn him for his crimes. I am writing this because of the disturbing amount of comments I’ve read that go something like this: Maybe if Cruz’s classmates and peers had been a little nicer to him, this tragedy would never have occurred.
This deeply dangerous sentiment, expressed under the #WalkUpNotOut hashtag, implies that acts of school violence can be stopped if students befriend disturbed and potentially dangerous classmates. The idea that we are to blame, even implicitly, for the murders of our friends and teachers is a slap in the face to all Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims and survivors.
A year after I was assaulted by Cruz, I was assigned to tutor him through my school’s peer counseling program. Being a peer counselor was the first real responsibility I had ever had, my first glimpse of adulthood, and I took it very seriously.
Despite my increasing discomfort, I sat down with him, alone. I was forced to endure his cursing me out and ogling my chest until the hourlong class period was up. When I was done, I felt a surge of pride for having organized his binder and helped him with his homework.
Looking back, I am horrified. I now understand that I was left, unassisted, with a student who had a known history of rage and brutality.
Like many pre-teenage and teenage girls, I possessed — and still, to an extent, possess — a strong desire to please. I strive to win the praise of the adults in my life and long to be seen as mature beyond my years. I would have done almost anything to win the approval of my teachers.
This is not to say that children should reject their more socially awkward or isolated peers — not at all. As a former peer counselor and current teacher’s assistant, I strongly believe in and have seen the benefits of reaching out to those who need kindness most.
But students should not be expected to cure the ills of our genuinely troubled classmates, or even our friends, because we first and foremost go to school to learn. The implication that Cruz’s mental health issues could have been solved if only he had been loved more by his fellow students is both a gross misunderstanding of how these diseases work and a dangerous suggestion that puts children on the front line.
It is not the obligation of children to befriend classmates who have demonstrated aggressive, unpredictable or violent tendencies. It is the responsibility of the school administration and guidance department to pinpoint those students and get them the help that they need, even if it is extremely specialized attention that cannot be provided at the same institution. No amount of kindness or compassion alone would have changed the person that Cruz is and was, or the horrendous actions he perpetrated. That is a weak excuse for the failures of our school system, our government and our gun laws.
My little sister is now the age that I was when I was left alone with Cruz, anxious and defenseless. The thought of her being put in the same situation that I experienced fills me with rage. I hope that she will never know the fear that I have become so accustomed to in the past month: The slightest unexpected sound makes my throat constrict and my neck hairs curl. I beg her to trust her gut whenever she feels unsafe. And I demand that the adults in her life protect her.
Isabelle Robinson is a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.© 2018 New York Times