By Heather Abraham


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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Accused of killing 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and injuring more than a dozen others, Nikolas Cruz had only been in custody a few hours when people started to dissect his life, trying to answer the questions: Why, and were there warning signs?

His signature, scribbled on a court document just days after the shooting, was described by some as childlike.

(Photo Provided)

Local handwriting expert Michelle Dresbold says there was good reason to analyze it for answers.

“I call it threat analysis. How dangerous is the writer of the note?” she said.

Dresbold, author of “Sex, Lies and Handwriting,” has been called to countless local schools to investigate bomb threats. She’s not just trying to identify who wrote it, but also to determine if the threat is real.

“There’s signs in handwriting that will make me scared,” Dresbold said. “There’s also certain wording of those bomb threats that makes me take it more seriously.”

In examples of threats she’s previously analyzed and other handwriting samples, she points out things many may never ever notice.

“I always talk about this letter ‘D.’ We call it a diabolical ‘D.’ And it’s a ‘D’ that slants farther to the right than any other letter, and that means that person is becoming more and more emotionally unable to control themselves,” Dresbold said.

She also says check marks scattered through handwriting can be a sign of something dangerous.

“You will start something with this jerky, check-mark stroke. That is a sure sign of anger,” she said.

Dresbold says when someone has a heavily dotted “i,” think of it like someone being unable to let go.

“Your hand can’t move on. It’s a sign of compulsion. That person is stuck in a certain spot. Maybe they’re stuck and they can remember what happened when they were in fifth grade, and they’ve never gotten over it,” Dresbold said.

She says often with school threats, they are less about causing harm and more a cry for help. She pointed to an example of a school threat where there was a loop in a “W.”

(Photo Provided)

“This is called a worry loop … A worry loop means it’s extra loops. That means thoughts go round and round and round in their head,” Dresbold said. “So when you see this, you have somebody who has a lot of worry and their thoughts just go over and over and over.”

Dresbold says keep in mind that handwriting can change among younger children as they become more skilled writers, and teenagers can sometimes imitate their friends handwriting. But she recommends to check in with the child if you notice a difference.

Her hope is that teachers, guidance counselors and school professionals take notice of changing handwriting and use it as a prompt to check in with the student. KDKA spoke with Penn Hills school psychologist Dr. Angela Lickenfelt, who says it could be a good tool for educators.

“I think it could be beneficial if you do have a sample or something longitudinal of the child’s,” she said.

Dr. Lickenfelt explained anxiety and depression are often under-reported and children will try to hide it, and this could be good insight that something’s wrong when they aren’t speaking up about their problems.

“A lot of times, those behaviors are so secretive that they’re not prominent and we don’t see outward acting behaviors because they do deliberately try to hide those behaviors,” Lickenfelt said.

“Be aware of what’s going on in their handwriting. Be aware if it’s starting to look strange. Be aware if it’s starting to change drastically,” Dresbold added.

Heather Abraham