Retired Secret Service Agent Warned Florida High School Staff About Security Flaws
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Two months before the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School, a retired Secret Service agent warned administrators that the school could be vulnerable to a gunman.
Gates were unlocked. Students did not wear identification badges. A fire alarm could send students streaming into the halls. Active-shooter drills were inadequate, he said.
The retired agent, Steve Wexler, said he made his point by strolling through the school with Post-it notes, attaching them to places his bullets or knife would land if he were an intruder. No one stopped him, he said.
In an interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Wexler said he was invited to analyze the school’s security and presented his recommendations to four staff members.
“I said, ‘This stuff is blatantly obvious. You’ve got to fix this,’ ” Wexler said.
He never heard another word from the district, he said.
Now a state commission reviewing the shooting wants to speak with Wexler. “We’re aware of him,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is in charge of the commission. Several full-time investigators are still lining up interviews, but “we’re interested in talking to him,” Gualtieri said.
School district spokeswoman Tracy Clark confirmed that “a school administrator did discuss security recommendations from an individual last year,” but she would not disclose details because they involve safety.
Wexler retired from the Secret Service in 2014 after 27 years with the agency. He was well-known among teachers at the school.
Both of his children graduated from Stoneman Douglas, and he spoke regularly to classes about law enforcement searches and seizures and criminal deviance.
He had offered in the past to make security recommendations. The district “finally took me up on the offer” in December when a teacher on behalf of the school’s security committee asked him to conduct a “site survey” of the campus. Was school security sufficient? They wanted to know.
Wexler said he didn’t know what prompted the request. He said he printed out details about the school: its floor plan, bell schedule, and an aerial map.
Then he arrived early for his meeting Dec. 13 and pulled his truck into the visitor’s parking lot.
The gate was open, as it should be at that time, but he sat there for 20 minutes, he said, and no security approached him.
Then, he summoned Assistant Principal Winfred Porter to his truck and asked permission to go on a demonstration before their meeting at 1 p.m.
With Porter as his passenger, Wexler moved his truck into the bus loop through an open gate. “Why the heck was it unlocked” at midday, he wondered.
With Porter watching from afar, he wandered into the school breezeway, surrounded by students and staff, then walked through an open back door to the administration building.
He had written numbers 1 through 20 on yellow Post-it notes. He didn’t want to mess with kids, he said, so he focused on the staff.
Assistant Principal Denise Reed was the first adult he saw inside, he said. He handed her the first sticky. It said “1.”
She was the first “victim” who could have been shot or stabbed.
Then he went to the second spot, posting Post-it notes on desks and on door jambs.
“Nobody challenged me,” he said. “No one approached me—‘Who are you?’ ”
He had gone through all 20 Post-its when he reached Deputy Scot Peterson’s office. The school resource officer had his back turned to the door while working on his computer. Wexler didn’t leave a note near Peterson—“I’m still blue,” he said referencing his loyalty to law enforcement—and turned to Porter instead.
“Mr. Porter, I ran out of numbers. You want me to keep going?” he asked.
But he had made his point.
Wexler said he sat down with Reed, the assistant principal; Porter; School Security Specialist Kelvin Greenleaf; and Sandra Davis, the social studies teacher who had made the call inviting him on campus.
For the next hour and a half, he said, he laid out what he perceived to be security recommendations and pointing out weaknesses, his notes scribbled on yellow sheets of a legal pad.
Wexler said he never made a written report or email, but he showed the Sun Sentinel the notes he said he used for his presentation that day.
Among his recommendations:
• School gates should be locked, and students should wear ID badges showing they belong on campus. The schools’ policy requires gates to be locked during the day, but Wexler said he found they were not. The shooter on Feb. 14 was able to get on campus because the gates were opened at the end of the school day.
• Active-shooter drills should be routine. After the shooting, some students said they had not been involved in drills this year.
• Any adult should be able to declare a Code Red to lock down the school. Clark, the school district spokeswoman, said that is the current protocol, but Wexler said he was told an assistant principal notifies the principal, who then makes the call. “That’s a problem,” he said he told the staff. “This stuff happens fast. This playing telephone is no good. By that time we could sit down and have breakfast.”
• Schools should not immediately evacuate students for a fire alarm without first confirming there’s a fire. During the shooting, the gunfire set off the smoke alarm, and students fled into the halls, where the shooter could take aim.
Forcing hundreds of children to descend into one open area could be a tactic of a shooter, Wexler said.
“We learned that from Columbine. We know the first thing is a distraction. You don’t run out anymore. You shelter in place. You need to confirm that is why the alarm went off.”
The gunman in Parkland used a similar tactic. He made his way to a third-floor teachers’ lounge and tried to shoot fleeing students through a window, but the bullets did not penetrate the hurricane glass.
Wexler said he is aggravated that administrators ignored or minimized most of his recommendations. “Where on the food chain did that information die?” he asked.
He said he knows of only one suggestion that was implemented before the shooting—campus security staff began to patrol the front parking lot.
Greenleaf and Davis could not be reached for comment about the meeting in December. Reed and Porter said they would not comment.
Reached outside his home Friday, Principal Ty Thompson said he couldn’t talk about his handling of the matter.
“I’ve stayed away from the media,” he said. “I’m focusing on my kids right now and getting them ready for the fall.”
Wexler said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is reviewing law enforcement’s response to the shooting, called him but had not scheduled a meeting. FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said she could not identify who would be interviewed during an active investigation.
Of the Stoneman Douglas administration, Wexler said: “I tell them what to do and then they don’t do it. If they didn’t want to use the recommendation, why then would the school reach out to me?”
“I said, ‘Keep the gates locked.’ If they just kept the gates locked the kid would have had to jump the fence and then it would have been more obvious.”
“It didn’t have to happen. Those kids didn’t have to die.”