Guns in classrooms are not the answer
Nearly 20 years after Columbine — and despite more than 40 school shootings since, including at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech — the faculty and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were abjectly unprepared for Nikolas Cruz and his AR-15.
So was the Broward County Sheriff ’s Office, which was charged with protecting them.
Those are the brutal but inescapable conclusions of the state commission investigating the Feb. 14 massacre, which left 17 dead and 17 injured. The panel released its 407-page draft report Wednesday and will continue to work on it.
The report tells a wrenching story of warnings ignored and safety measures untaken. One commission member, a grieving parent, did not overstate in calling the Parkland massacre “the most preventable” of school shootings, a modern phenomenon whose frequency and ferocity represents a unique national disgrace.
The commission identified a multitude of failures, including the failure to believe something like this could happen at Stoneman Douglas, the failure to appreciate the threat posed by a student involved in 69 violent incidents since third grade, the failure to lock or attend open gates, the failure to respond to an active shooter by calling a Code Red lockdown, the failure to create safe classroom corners invisible from door windows, the failure to conduct active-shooter drills, and the failure of law enforcement to adhere to national norms in responding to a school shooting.
Regrettably, before delivering its report to the Florida Legislature, the commission ended its final meeting with a call to arm teachers.
That’s dangerous. No teacher would be a good match for a deranged youth wielding a high-velocity, military-style assault weapon. It’s false security that distracts from what should be done.
Cruz shot 34 people while an armed sheriff ’s deputy cowered outside. Arriving deputies hesitated to enter, too. Apparently, they relied on a department policy that flouts the lesson of Columbine, which calls for police to immediately pursue the shooter, not wait for reinforcements, perimeters or command posts.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel had changed the policy to say deputies “may” — not “shall” — pursue the shooter. “I want an effective tactical response, not a suicide response,” he told the commission.
It took 11 minutes for police to enter Stoneman Douglas. Even then, it was four officers from the Coral Springs Police Department. BSO deputies remained just outside the door, the report said. This disgrace was the most egregious of BSO’s many failures that day.
Meanwhile, the school’s faculty and staff, including designated safety monitors, appeared largely clueless on how and when to call a “Code Red,” which would have alerted teachers and students to take shelter in their classrooms.
It didn’t happen when a school monitor first saw Cruz — someone he knew as “crazy boy” — emerge from an Uber carrying what looked like a rifle bag. It didn’t happen after that person told a second monitor that Cruz had entered the 1200 building. It didn’t happen after a student Believing they were responding to a fire drill, not an active shooter alert, more than 100 students filed into the third floor hallway of the besieged 1200 building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, not knowing school shooter Nikolas Cruz was on his way up.
told a third monitor that Cruz had a rifle and told him, “Get out of here. Something bad’s about to happen.” It happened only after that third monitor was found dead — three minutes and 16 seconds after Cruz had fired his first shots.
By then, Cruz was halfway down the third floor of the besieged 1200 building, where no one heard the Code Red because of an ill-equipped public-address system.
The report includes a haunting image of about a hundred students packed shoulderto-shoulder in the third floor hallway, casually responding to what they believed was a routine fire drill. They had no idea a muzzle flash in the massacre two floors below had likely set off the fire alarm. Neither did they know Cruz was making his way toward them. The panic those fleeing students and teachers faced in the following minutes had to have been horrific. Six died. Had the killer ascended moments earlier, it would have been much, much worse.
The report also says most classrooms lacked a designated “hard corner” where students could hide out of sight from a killer targeting victims through doorway windows, as Cruz did on the first floor. In some classrooms, clutter and immovable objects kept students from squeezing into safety zones. One died on the line.
In November, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told commissioners the district had immediately set out to improve safety measures. He told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board this week that among other things, 70 percent of schools now have a single point of entry, new gate and camera systems have been installed, and anyone who hasn’t been to a school lately wouldn’t recognize today's tough procedures for gaining access.
But many commission members, who have gained a deep understanding of the district’s culture, don't trust him.
You could hear it in the questions they put to Runcie about the district’s approach to students who pose protracted threats,
about whether the district reports all violent acts to police for review, about the continued lack of a district-wide Code Red policy, about the continued lack of performance standards for school monitors, about the continued lack of law enforcement access to school security cameras, about the continued failure to have cleared and taped-off hard corners at Stoneman Douglas and other schools, about a flawed safety assessment Stoneman Douglas submitted after the massacre, and about whether anyone has been held accountable.
“We're 273 days, 15 hours and 53 minutes, to be exact, from the minute that the shooter started his attack,” said commission member and state Sen. Lauren Book, whose district includes Parkland. “And, again, to my understanding, there is no Code Red policy in place that is districtwide. Is that correct or incorrect?”
Polk County Sheriff Brady Judd asked Runcie to define “a sense of urgency.” He later coached the superintendent on how to hold people accountable. He made clear that the commission, which has a five-year life span, will be holding Runcie accountable.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the commission, says Runcie has been transparent with the commission and that he asked the superintendent to hold off on an internal investigation, which could lead to disciplinary measures. But he, too, has pressed the superintendent to get going on hard corners and a Code Red policy.
In interviews, Gualtieri has suggested the culture wasn’t unique at Stoneman Douglas before Valentine’s Day. He believes other schools similarly fail to appreciate the threat of a school shooting, as though it won’t happen to them.
Given that culture, a belief that law enforcement can’t be everywhere and that most deaths happen in the first few minutes, commissioners voted 13-1 this week to recommend that the Legislature allow teachers to be armed.
While we agree that a renewed and heavy emphasis must be made on school safety, we take strong exception to the commission’s headline-grabbing recommendation. There are too many ways that arming teachers could go horribly wrong.
Gualtieri notes that Cruz paused five times to reload his gun and that during those moments, armed and trained volunteer teachers could have taken him out.
But teachers were hiding in their classrooms, afraid to look. Some were afraid to open their doors to lock them, which could only be done from the outside. Some were afraid to cross the classroom to call a Code Red on the intercom.
It takes heroic courage for people to confront killers. People who go into teaching say they want to teach. They expect law enforcement to address active threats. We all expect that. And the commission’s report shows even armed deputies were afraid to confront Cruz.
What the commission didn’t address is the law of unintended consequences of arming teachers.
While the names of those wearing guns wouldn’t be identified, you can bet students would quickly figure out who they were, especially given the casual dress of teachers these days.
Now consider that last month, Cruz rushed a jail guard and grabbed his stun gun in a struggle. What if an out-of-control student tried to snatch a teacher’s sidearm?
Would the weapons instead be locked in a classroom gun safe, safe from misuse but essentially useless in an emergency?
Plus, students can be extremely provocative, challenging any teacher’s self-control. Guns don’t belong in that scenario.
And what would protect teachers from friendly fire? If they wear special clothing, wouldn’t that make them the first targets for a killer? In the recent mass shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, it was a state trooper’s bullet, not the criminal’s, that killed a deputy sheriff. And at an Alabama shopping mall, officers rushing to the scene shot a good guy with a gun.
Arming teachers is eyewash, an utterly unacceptable alternative to the many other steps, however more expensive, that would keep our schools safer without degrading the learning environment. Students shouldn’t be expected to learn under the tutelage of teachers bearing weapons.
Sad to say, the Stoneman Douglas commission report says nothing about better gun control, which would include a longoverdue ban on military-style assault weapons like the one Cruz used to massacre so many. The commission has until
2023 to complete its work. Common sense gun control belongs on its agenda.
In the last 20 years, schools have faced targeted attacks 46 times — 33 by students,
10 by former students.
It’s going to happen again. You can’t stop it, all you can do is prepare for it. There can be no more excuses for failing to prepare.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O'Hara, David Lyons and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.