A Florida jury on Thursday acquitted former Broward County school resource officer Scot Peterson of criminal charges brought after he failed to enter a Parkland, Fla., high school during a 2018 mass shooting in a which a former student killed 17 people and injured 17 others.
The case—along with the fumbled law enforcement response to a 2022 shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school—shined a critical light on the role of law enforcement in keeping students and school employees safe. It is the first time in U.S. history that an officer has been tried for failure to act during a school shooting, the Associated Press reported.
Peterson, 60, openly wept as a Broward County judge read a verdict rendered after three days of deliberations.
“Don’t anybody ever forget this was a massacre on Feb. 14,” he told reporters as he left the courthouse. “The only person to blame was that monster,” he said, referring to the gunman who attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
Prosecutors charged Peterson with six counts of felony child neglect with great bodily harm, one count of child neglect without great harm, three counts of culpable negligence, and one count of perjury.
Security camera footage showed that Peterson did not enter the “1200 building,” a location on the multi-building campus that largely housed freshman classes, instead taking cover outside for about 45 minutes after initially responding to the sound of gun shots. If the deputy had intervened before the gunman reached the building’s third floor, there may have been fewer casualties, the state argued.
“All these active shooter scenarios happen very quickly and you’ve got to get in and you’ve got to find the shooter and do everything you can to find him so that you can stop the killing,” prosecutor Scott Klinger told the jury in opening statements.
Peterson’s attorneys argued he could not identify where the sound of gunfire was coming from and that it would be wrong for a jury to second guess his actions in a calm courtroom years later.
“It’s a victory for every law enforcement officer in this country who does the best they can every single day,” defense attorney Mark Eiglarsh said at a news conference after the verdict.
A novel legal argument
Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., it has been standard protocol for law enforcement to rush to confront a mass shooter as quickly as possible in hopes of preventing or limiting injuries and deaths.
Peterson’s actions during the shooting, which lasted less than seven minutes, were a subject of mass scrutiny as the Parkland community grieved.
“His inaction contributed to the pain of our entire community, and we don’t understand how this jury looked at the evidence and found him not guilty,” Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was killed in the shooting, told reporters Thursday.
Families in Uvalde, Texas, raised similar questions after 376 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies stood outside of a classroom door for an hour rather than confronting the gunman inside. Twenty-one people died in that attack, and the school’s police chief was fired for failure to assume his role as incident commander as outlined in the district’s security plan.
If convicted, Peterson could have faced a sentence of nearly 100 years in prison.
To prove charges of child neglect, the prosecution needed to convince the jury of a novel theory that Peterson could be considered a “caregiver” under a statute that typically applies to parents and custodial guardians, and that he had an affirmative obligation to intervene. That law defines neglect as “a caregiver’s failure to make a reasonable effort to protect a child from abuse, neglect, or exploitation by another person.”
Montalto stressed that the jury’s decision related to the technical specifics of the law and does not mean Peterson’s actions the day of the shooting could be deemed appropriate.
State lawmakers and school district leaders often move to add more school law enforcement in response to high-profile school shootings, even if an on-site officer was unable to intervene. After the Parkland tragedy, Florida lawmakers passed a bill that required a law enforcement officer or trained, armed “school guardian” in every public school building.
Texas lawmakers passed a similar law after the Uvalde tragedy.
“We believe in school resource officers. We believe they are a vital part of protecting our children in school,” said Montalto, who leads Stand with Parkland, an organization run by victims’ families to advocate for school safety measures. “However, we need it to be an insurance policy that pays off.”
The Parkland gunman has been sentenced to life in prison.