Lost Sense of School as a Safe Place
After Parkland, Fla., shooting, wrenching questions over whether the attack could have been prevented
Within 24 hours of the deadliest mass shooting at a U.S. high school, there was a sense among survivors and their families here in this south Florida community that this one might be different, if only because they were determined to make it so.
The scale of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School quickly drew international headlines. It was Valentine's Day when Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old who'd been removed from the school the previous year, entered a building that holds freshman classes and opened fire with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle, killing 17 students and adults and injuring 15 others, police said.
Students waited out the shooting in locked classrooms and darkened closets. They weren't yet born when the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., sparked policy changes that would alter their generation's educational experience with lockdown drills, metal detectors, and fears of gun violence.
And now those fears had been realized, setting off an almost immediate movement of student activism, yet another call among politicians for "a national conversation" about gun violence, and a cascade of distressing questions that the community—and the entire country—will likely wrestle with for months and years to come. Chief among them: Could this have been prevented?
"Don't tell me there's no such thing as gun violence," said Fred Guttenberg, who spoke at a candlelight vigil in a public park the day after his 14-year-old daughter Jamie was killed in her classroom. His voice got louder as it cracked. "It happened in Parkland."
The next day, the FBI said it failed to investigate a tip last month that someone close to Cruz was concerned about his "disturbing social-media posts" and "desire to kill people."
A week later, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said a review of security footage showed an armed deputy assigned to the campus had taken position outside of the building, but he never entered, missing a chance to stop the attack.
Those revelations added to concerns already piling up.
Would tighter restrictions on gun purchases have stopped Cruz? Do schools have the resources to help students like Cruz, who was known by teachers, law enforcement, and mental-health professionals for a pattern of disruptive and disturbing behavior? Were security protocols adequate? Will students and teachers there ever feel safe in school again?
Stoneman Douglas students are well-practiced in shooting drills, officials said.
"The kids knew exactly what to do and where to go and how to get there," said math teacher Jim Gard.
But they weren't prepared for a set of circumstances that would scramble every safety protocol they had practiced in their drills.
A fire alarm had gone off inside Stoneman Douglas High School just as the day was about to end, sending Gard and his students into the hallway. It was strange, the teacher said, because they'd had a fire drill earlier in the day, but Gard followed the school's safety procedures and ushered his students out, taking up the rear to make sure his classroom was empty.
"We heard all of these popping sounds," he said. "I can't count how many. There were a lot."
Then the announcement: Code Red. A shooter on campus.
Gard and his fellow teachers rushed students back into classrooms where they locked doors, turned off lights, and huddled in closets and corners. Some allowed students to put on headphones and call their parents, staying quiet as they sought comfort from a one-sided conversation on the other end of the phone line.
Because students had already started to evacuate the building, many never made it back to their original classrooms for the lockdown. Teachers spent the next several hours emailing each other to track down missing students.
As police responded to the scene, they found hundreds of students fleeing the buildings, walking with teachers to nearby businesses where they would later reunite with their families.
Police said Cruz was among them. Wearing a deep-red shirt, the school's color, he discarded his weapon and blended in with the crowd.
Before the shooting, a campus monitor saw Cruz enter the building carrying a backpack and duffel bag and "recognized him as a former troubled student," court documents show. He radioed a co-worker to warn him Cruz was "walking purposefully" toward the freshman building.
Within a minute, the monitor heard gun shots.
"Stuff like this shouldn't be allowed to happen," said a sophomore who did not want to be named. She added that the building was "way too open."
School safety experts say controlling building access is one of the most important measures schools can take to ensure safety. Many elementary and middle schools limit access to a single set of locked doors that can only be opened with permission from staff members. High schools, usually larger and with multiple buildings, can be more challenging to secure.
Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said access was more open at the time of the shooting because it happened toward the end of the school day, when staff were opening up the campus to dismiss its 3,300 students.
"Nothing—nothing in the world—is going to stop somebody who wants to create mass tragedies like this," Runcie told Education Week. "All we can do is minimize it, and that's what the training does."
Beyond physical security, teachers and parents wondered if more could have been done to address Cruz's behavior. Orphaned when his mother died recently, he was living with the family of a classmate, who told the Sun-Sentinel they weren't aware of his history. That family allowed Cruz to keep an AR-15 in his room if he promised to keep it locked in a gun locker.
"It's the way we have to live our lives in circa 2018," Israel, the sheriff, said at a news conference the day after the shootings. "If we see something, we need to say something."
But it quickly became clear that many people had spoken up about Cruz.
Israel's office said it had received about 20 calls about the suspect in recent years. Deputies got a call in November that Cruz "could be a school shooter in the making," but did not write a report, Israel said Friday. And two years ago, a deputy warned the school resource officer of a report that Cruz "planned to shoot up the school."
Citing disciplinary records it obtained, the Washington Post reported that Cruz had "a long string of escalating disciplinary measures throughout his academic career for insubordination, profanity, disruption, fighting, and assault."
"In January 2017, when Cruz was disciplined for an alleged assault, that triggered a call for a threat assessment, a formal process by which the school determines whether a student is dangerous and how that student should be supervised and supported," the paper reported, adding that it's unclear whether such an assessment was ever conducted.
District leaders have refused to discuss Cruz's records citing federal privacy laws. Runcie told Education Week that that schools need more resources and more community support to address student behavior and mental-health concerns.
Around the country, parents began questioning if their children's schools were adequately confronting similar concerns with their own students. And policymakers began asking if there is enough coordination among public-health providers, schools, and law enforcement to ensure that no one slips through the cracks.
'This Could Happen Anywhere'
As throngs of cameras and satellite trucks descended on their city, Stoneman Douglas students started to ask tough questions of the adults responsible for protecting them.
"I want them to know this could happen anywhere," said Michala Christie, 14, a freshman who heard the gunman banging loudly on the locked door of her geography classroom as she waited inside. Two of her friends were killed: Alex Schachter, 14, a trombone player who played alongside her in the school's band, and Gina Montalto, 14, who was a member of the marching band's winter guard.
A vocal group of teenagers, joined by Runcie and Israel, began calling on lawmakers to rethink gun laws. They stood before countless TV cameras to make impassioned pleas and they barraged social media, some of them tweeting directly to President Donald Trump. Organizing under the name #NeverAgain, they organized calls for nationwide protests and a rally in Washington.
David Hogg, 17, recorded his classmate's thoughts about guns on his cellphone as they sat locked in a darkened classroom during the shooting.
"If I was going to die, I was going to die telling a story," said Hogg, a senior. "We're children," he said in a CNN interview the day after the attack. "You guys are the adults."
As students lobbied for changes to gun laws, state and national leaders began to discuss proposals related to school safety and firearms. Trump met with school shooting survivors and their families at the White House, including some whose children were killed in the Parkland attack.
"It should have been one school shooting, and we should have fixed it," Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, died in the shooting, told Trump. "I'm pissed! My daughter—I'm not going to see again! She's not here."
After the meeting, Trump called for training and arming teachers, suggesting bonuses for those who carry guns. The idea was widely dennounced by educators, Runcie, Parkland leaders, and the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Even as their experiences became the central anecdote in resurging debates about school safety, educators at Stoneman Douglas had to face the reality of a long recovery.
Staff members planned to return to campus late last week. The school planned a voluntary event for students and parents Feb. 25 with hopes of starting classes a few days later. Students have been meeting with counselors throughout the city and gathering in front of a memorial in a city park. The district plans to raze the building where the shooting took place.
English teacher Holly Van Tassel-Schuster has used a homework app to send her students messages of support, like "I love you. I miss you guys so much."
Students lost more than the friends and teachers, said Adeena Teres, a science teacher at the school, who's been meeting nightly with her colleagues to prepare for the days ahead.
"They lost the sense of school as a safe place," she said.
Vol. 37, Issue 22, Pages 10-11Published in Print: February 28, 2018, as Lost Sense of School as a Safe Place