By the time Jim Gard realized he needed to lock down his classroom Wednesday, many of his students were out of reach.
A fire alarm had gone off inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just as the school day was about to end, sending Gard and his math 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 protocols and ushered his students out, taking up the rear to make sure his classroom was empty.
Then the noise started.
“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 was on campus. The popping was gunfire from a semi-automatic rifle that would eventually claim the lives of 17 students and adults and wound at least 14 others at the high school of more than 3,000 students.
It would become the third-deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history.
Before Gard could rush to pull his students back into his second-floor room, many had already made their way down the stairs, too far away to comply. He scrambled to take the six students who were standing in the hallway into the back corner of the classroom. He shut off the lights, locked the door, and quickly taped a piece of thick paper over the little window so no one could see in.
Unaware that one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history was unfolding in their building, Gard and his students would spend more than an hour in the dark, quietly reassuring each other and trying to account for the classmates who weren’t there with them.
Students at the Broward County high school are well-practiced in shooting drills, officials said.
“The kids knew exactly what to do and where to go and how to get there,” Gard said, recalling a recent training session with local police.
But they weren’t prepared for a set of circumstances that would scramble every safety protocol they had practiced in their drills.
Officials said Nikolas Cruz, 19, who had been expelled from the school the previous year, had entered the building and started firing on students congregating in the hallways after a fire alarm had driven them from their classrooms. He was reportedly equipped with a gas mask and smoke grenades. After apparently discarding his weapon—an AR-15, a similar weapon used in other mass shootings—Cruz walked out of the building, blending in with the students to make an easy escape.
He was later arrested in a nearby town and charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.
A Broward County Sheriff’s Office report says Cruz has confessed to being the shooter.
On Thursday, residents of Parkland—once listed as one of the safest cities in America—started a conversation that communities around the country have had after their own school shootings: What, if anything, could have been done differently? How do you prepare for such a perfect storm of complicated circumstances?
“Nothing—nothing in the world—is going to stop somebody who wants to create mass tragedies like this,” Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie told Education Week. “All we can do is minimize it, and that’s what the training does.”
Runcie said the school officials had done exactly what they were trained to do under the circumstances.
“The school went to the most severe state of lock down status,” he said. “Our first responders on the campus basically sacrificed their lives to help save our kids.”
Some students said they couldn’t make sense right away of what was unfolding. There’d already been a fire drill that day. And they’d never experienced a safety drill at dismissal time.
‘I Didn’t Want Them to Panic’
Amid the confusion and fear, Gard said his students behaved according to plan when he called them in for a lockdown, but he was concerned about the ones who were missing.
He quieted his mind and sought to reassure his students.
Why were they in a Code Red? “They’d been planning for another lock down drill, so maybe that was it,” he told them.
What was all of that noise? “Maybe someone is shooting blanks,” he said.
“I didn’t want them to panic,” Gard said.
But after a few more pops and the sounds of sirens outside, he asked his students to call their parents. One girl was so emotional and overwhelmed that she handed her phone to her teacher, who reassured her mother: “They’re well taken care of. We’re secure. No one is going to come in here. I will make sure that these children will be fine.”
Huddled with his students and not sure what was happening, Gard checked his email. Teachers throughout the building were emailing one another with lists of students they’d pulled into their classrooms before the lockdown started.
He ran down his roster, marking off students who’d been absent that day and everyone he could account for in another classroom. He enlisted his students to text their classmates, checking to be sure they were ok.
All but three were accounted for.
Then the class started to hear banging on the floor below them. The banging continued until there was pounding on Gard’s classroom door.
“Police!” a person announced.
“Prove it!” Gard yelled back, pulling back the paper over his classroom window so he could see the officer’s badge as he held it up to the glass.
Officers entered the classroom and walked Gard and the students out single-file. Each person’s hands rested on the shoulders of the person in front of them.
The students didn’t see any signs of the shooting as they left the building. Occasionally officers would say “look left! Keep looking left!” to divert their attention as they evacuated, Gard said.
Walking out into a holding area where other teachers and students were gathering, Gard spotted the last three students he couldn’t account for.
“I felt like I found all of my children,” he said.
But that moment of relief gave way to the unspeakable losses.
As Superintendent Runcie walked by the building Wednesday, he saw lifeless bodies through a window.
“It’s horrific, horrific,” he said.
Into the night Wednesday, families whose children were missing started sharing photos on social media, hoping to learn, however improbably, that they weren’t among the victims.
By Thursday morning, officers had identified all of the victims, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said, but a few bodies remained in the school as investigators worked to process a large and complicated crime scene.
Freshman Isaac Briones, 15, brought 17 white balloons to his school Thursday morning, one for each classmate and adult who died. They included an assistant football coach who worked as a security guard, hailed as a hero after some said he stepped in front of bullets to protect students; an athletic director, and a friend Briones had been joking around with in first period earlier that day.
“I couldn’t really sleep last night,” Briones said, clasping the balloons in one hand and speaking in calm tones. “I still can’t believe this is happening.”
Nearby, senior David Hogg, 17, walked up to cable news satellite trucks, offering to share video files with them from his cellphone. He wanted the world to see what he had experienced, he said.
During the shooting, Hogg interviewed his classmates about how they were feeling. He hoped the clips would give people a glimpse of what the students experienced, he said.
“If you look around this closet and saw everyone just hiding together, you would see that this shouldn’t be happening to anyone, and that it doesn’t deserve to happen to anyone,” a girl says in one of his clips.
Hogg said the students in his AP environmental science class had assumed the lockdown was a drill at first.
“That actually helped keep a lot of us calm,” he said.
Warning Signs on Alleged Shooter
While the public, and the throng of national media outlets that descended on this south Florida city, had many questions about the school’s safety procedures, they had many more questions about Cruz.
While Runcie wouldn’t share much about Cruz, citing federal privacy laws, he said the 19-year-old had been sent to another Broward County school after his expulsion from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Students shared stories about warning signs they’d seen with Cruz: like social media posts about guns and dead animals and a “loner” mentality.
A YouTube user told CNN that he’d reported a commenter named “Nikolas Cruz” to the FBI last year after he commented: “Im [sic] going to be a professional school shooter.” But FBI special agent Robert Lasky said Thursday the agency was unable to confirm that the poster was Cruz.
“No other information was included with that comment which would indicate a time, location or the true identity of the person who made the comment,” he said during a news conference. “The FBI conducted database reviews, checks but was unable to further identify the person who actually made the comment.”
Superintendent Runcie said that district and school officials had not received any reports of Cruz’s social media posts featuring guns and other disturbing images that were apparently well known among students.
“We didn’t get any reports,” he said in an interview. The district, he said, has a tip line for people to report concerns and that it frequently gets reports about students’ social media posts. “I know of at least a couple cases that I am familiar with where we were able to go…into a young person’s home, search their room, and we confiscated firearms and so on.”
But with Cruz, he said, “there were no signs that we received from anyone. I think part of it was related to the fact that this student was really disengaged from school.”
The superintendent said any tips that come in are investigated and taken seriously.
“Because we don’t want to be wrong once,” he said. “We go through lots of bomb threats drills and other threats … they all usually turn out to be false, but unfortunately in this case, nothing showed [that a threat] was potentially coming.”
Richard Cantlupe, a social studies teacher at Westglades Middle School, remembers Cruz very well. As the school’s union steward, Cantlupe said he knew about Cruz’s behavior problems even though he wasn’t one of his students. Cantlupe said as an 8th grader, Cruz had well over 20 disciplinary referrals. Cantlupe said the referrals would have had to be for “serious” acts because the school district has a policy that tries to keep in check the overuse of student discipline.
“He should have never been allowed to be a student at Douglas High School,” Cantlupe said. “That’s how bad his behavior was in middle school.”
School safety researchers say school shooters often “leak” their intentions before they act. They’ve urged anonymous reporting systems, like state-run tip lines, to give students a place to report complaints.
Israel, the Broward County sheriff, urged the public to report any concerns they have to teachers, counselors, and law enforcement. He said laws should be eased so that law enforcement officers can more easily involuntarily admit people to mental-health treatment if they are concerned they may pose a harm to others.
“It’s the way we have to live our lives in circa 2018,” Israel said. “If we see something, we need to say something.”
Dewey Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia who is an expert in school threat assessment, said that one of the main lessons from this mass shooting will be that most schools do not have the resources they need to deal with deeply troubled students like Cruz.
“Typically, when we have a shooting like this, we have a young person who has been troubled for a long time,” said Cornell, who provides training in threat assessment to schools, both independently and in partnership with Sandy Hook Promise.
“People don’t just snap overnight, and there is a long period of time when they are signaling their need for assistance,” Cornell said, “and very often schools simply don’t have the time and resources or the orientation to reach out to them and assist them.”
Gard, the math teacher, said he’d had Cruz in his class for one quarter of the 2016-17 school year, but he doesn’t remember anything remarkable or troubling about him. He said he would have noticed if Cruz were exhibiting some of the troubling behaviors that have surfaced in media reports. He also said he’s not shy about talking to school counselors if he’s worried about a student.
“If a kid goes from As to Fs, yeah you write that up,” Gard said. “You don’t know. It could be an aunt dying. It could be a hamster. Or it could be something like this.”
Staff Writer Denisa R. Superville and Correspondent Lisa Stark contributed to this report.