At first, Ernest Rospierski thought it was a drill.
But within a minute, Nikolas Cruz had made his way on to the third floor of Marjory Stoneman High’s Building 12, where Rospierksi taught. His AR-15 assault rifle drawn, Cruz quickly shot four students and a fellow teacher. As Rospierski tried to protect a dozen other teens still exposed in the hallway, the gunman made eye contact, then pulled the trigger again.
Bullets grazed the history and geography teacher’s face and hip.
But his level-headed response—shielding his students in hallway alcoves, then ushering them to safety when Cruz stopped to reload—saved numerous lives, according to the state commission investigating the tragedy.
“Ernie Rospierski is an unsung hero,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the group’s chairman.
Now, nearly a year after the attack, Rospierski says such praise has helped him make peace with the decisions he made on Feb. 14. And he’s back working at Stoneman Douglas. But there’s a question that’s been gnawing at him.
Why, the seventh-year teacher wants to know, did it take officials from the Broward County Public Schools five months to make contact with him and see if he was OK?
For the nation’s sixth-largest school district, which says it’s doing everything it can to support a community torn apart by tragedy, it’s another sign of a rift that seems to just keep growing wider.
“The response from the school district has been more ‘cover your ass’ than anything else,” Rospierski said in an interview.
“It’s been too little, too late.”
‘Take Care of People First’
In the city of Parkland, the well-to-do Florida enclave where Stoneman Douglas is located, the ripple effects of the Feb. 14 massacre have been profound and enduring.
The shooting rampage left 17 people dead and 17 wounded. Potentially thousands more were traumatized. A community that once took its A-rated public schools for granted has been demanding answers to hard questions about how the 271,000 Broward County school district operates.
Superintendent Robert Runcie and other Broward officials point to numerous steps they’ve taken to improve safety and help Parkland heal. At Stoneman Douglas, there are new social workers and therapy dogs, more surveillance cameras and security staff, new fencing and portable classrooms.
In a written response to Education Week’s questions, Broward Schools officials also said that from the day Stoneman Douglas employees returned to work, “wellness services” such as massage therapy were made available in the school’s media center. Trained district staff were on standby to help out if teachers felt unable to manage their classrooms. The district has made a “meditation/mindfulness professional” available at the school in the mornings, before students arrive. Counseling services were available during spring and summer breaks.
In addition, the officials wrote, the district’s Employee Assistance Unit, “immediately began attempting” to reach Rospierski in February, to offer services and support. When he didn’t pick up, they left a message.
“My philosophy has always been to try to take care of people first,” Runcie said in an interview. “My team and I, we basically set up camp right there in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and made sure we were doing everything we could.”
A Deep Disconnect
Still, family members of the victims remain deeply angry, saying the district’s response has been marked by flip-flops and a lack of urgency and empathy.
Rospierski shares those concerns.
Two days after the shooting, he said, Stoneman Douglas teachers were called into a meeting. District officials said staff members at the school didn’t have to return to work until they were ready. Three days later, that decision was reversed. The school would reopen on Feb. 28, and teachers—many of whom wanted to return as part of their healing process, the district said—were expected to be there.
Furthermore, Rospierski said, some of the trauma counselors the district offered teachers were only available off-site, making them hard to access. He also described stories among Stoneman Douglas staff about district-provided counselors not being properly trained and breaking down during their conversations with teachers.
Broward district officials presented a different view.
They said Stoneman Douglas staff were immediately granted 10 extra days off. Teachers were told that if they weren’t up to returning, “it would be handled on a case-by-case basis,” according to the district’s written responses to questions.
And while it is “very possible” that the social workers and family therapists assigned to Stoneman Douglas after the attack “experienced secondary trauma,” such incidents were addressed by rotating staff through the school, according to Michaelle Pope, Broward’s head of student support initiatives.
It’s not as though there haven’t been any attempts to take care of Stoneman Douglas staff, Rospierski acknowledged. On two occasions, he said, he was part of meetings with Superintendent Runcie. He and his colleagues presented a series of requests, including an additional 10 days of time off, the right to transfer schools, and stop-the-bleed kits for their classrooms. The district delivered on most of the list, Rospierski said.
But the process sometimes took months. And during that time, Rospierski said, his frustration mounted.
The response from the school district has been more ‘cover your ass’ than anything else. It's been too little, too late.
There were relatively minor things. Because Building 12 remains under the control of the state attorney, teachers haven’t been allowed back in to retrieve their belongings. For Rospierski, that includes his “it’s been a long day” file, full of thank you notes he’s gotten from students and parents over the years.
There was also the infuriating lack of personal outreach.
His first contact with district officials checking in on his well-being, Rospierski said, came in August, just as the new school year was starting.
He felt bad for the person on the other end of the line, he said.
“If I hadn’t gotten myself mental-health help by then, what was a phone call going to do?” Rospierski asked.
A Burden Lifted
One of the hardest things during the aftermath of the shooting, Rospierski said, has been the second-guessing. He often wondered if he could have done more to stop the shooter or save other students.
At one point during the ordeal on Feb. 14, Rospierski passed through a doorway into the third-floor stairwell. He felt someone trying to push through behind him. Rospierski wasn’t sure who it was, so he’d used his foot to hold the door shut. Afterwards, he was racked with guilt, wondering if he’d prevented a student from escaping.
Then an administrator who’d seen the surveillance footage told Rospierksi that it was actually Cruz who’d been trying to push his way into the stairwell.
“When I found out was him, I pumped two fists in the air and started jumping up and down,” Rospierski said. “I’d thought it was a kid.”
The staff at Stoneman Douglas have been great about supporting each other through such moments, he said. The affirming words from state investigators have also helped. But the district has never thanked him for what he did, Rospierski said.
That’s why he’s speaking out now—because he wants to see things get better, and there are simple things he believes can be changed more quickly.
One example: Rospierski wants Broward Schools to enact better policies and training around active shooters. Prior to Feb. 14, he said, drills were sporadic, and the training he received consisted primarily of someone reading PowerPoint slides. In the months since, Rospierski said, drills have increased, but the underlying policies remain uncertain.
Superintendent Runcie disputed that contention.
“We’ve given clear directives out to schools,” he said. “It’s not just about the policy. It’s about the execution of doing this work and changing the culture in our schools.”
A Loss of Faith
Runcie also pointed out that districts the size of Broward Schools aren’t exactly known for moving fast.
“In order to get things done in a large governmental organization, you always are balancing speed against the necessary conversations and respect for input from your community,” he said.
“Sometimes, when you take a little more time, you get to better solutions.”
Rospierski said he understands.
He also gets that there are strong and opposing feelings on many of the issues that continue to roil Stoneman Douglas. When the district reassigned three of the school’s administrators and a security specialist late last month, for example, many of the victims’ families felt it was action that should have been taken months earlier. But many Stoneman Douglas students and teachers protested the move.
Rospierski said he sees both sides.
But what is clear to him, he said, is that the staffers have been key to holding a shattered school community together, and they shouldn’t have been removed in the middle of a school year.
“Off the top of my head, I can think of five better ways to handle that situation,” he said. “The easiest would have been to wait until winter break.”
The superintendent disagreed, saying there was no good way to satisfy everyone, and that he ultimately had to do what he thought was right.
That may illustrate the underlying disconnect. Like many in the Parkland community, Rospierski says he has lost faith in Runcie’s leadership. And the teacher praised as an “unsung hero” on Feb. 14 says he feels a growing urgency for change.
“I have a 2-year-old who is going to be going to Broward County schools,” Rospierski said. “I want things to be the way they should be.”
Lead Graphic: Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie at left. Clockwise from left are parents Tony Montalto, Ryan Petty, Max Schachter, Andrew Pollack, Fred Guttenberg, and Lori Alhadeff.
Photography by Josh Ritchie for Education Week
Graphics by Gina Tomko