Inside the Commission Investigating the Parkland Shooting

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Members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School Public Safety Commission sat in the BT&T center in mid-November. Their purpose was to examine what went wrong in the Valentine’s Day massacre which left 17 people dead inside a Parkland high school early this year and present their findings in a report in January. Some of its members are law enforcement officials from other counties. Some work in education. Some work in the government. But three of the members hold a special place at the table, not for their expertise but for the children they came to represent. They are parents of students killed in the tragedy.

During the November meetings, a comprehensive timeline of the shooting was presented for the first time.

Max Schachter, whose son Alex was killed in the shooting at the age of 14, was one of the commissioners to hear this information. Tragedy isn’t new for him. His first wife died when Alex was only four. He later fell in love with a woman named Caryn who had also lost her spouse. The two got married and started a family together; Mr. Schachter with his boys and now-Mrs. Schachter with her daughters. They moved to Parkland hoping to start a new life in the idyllic, upscale community. He never thought he’d be sitting at a table of men and women trying to dissect the systemic failures that may have led to his son’s murder.

He listened as Sgt. John Suess presented maps of the school and of the three-story building where the shooting occurred. On the maps were tiny colored dots indicting people who were on campus. Blue dots represented the Coral Springs Police Department (CSPD). Green Dots represented the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO). Red dots represented MSD staff. Yellow dots represented students.

One black dot represented the shooter, Nickolas Cruz.

The presentation was timestamped and orderly. Watching it, one can almost imagine the chaotic shooting occurring silently. It did not.

At one point in the presentation, Sgt. Suess presented the first 911 call made out of the school. A young female voice spoke.

“Hello, we’re at Stoneman Douglas High School and I think there’s a shooter-“

She is mid-sentence when shots fired in the background interrupt her. The call goes silent.

“Hello?” the operator asks. “You still there? Talk to me, please.”

There’s another burst of shots before the audio is cut.

Schachter leans into the mic and asks, “Sergeant, were those shots that we just heard into my son’s classroom?”

“We do not know, sir,” Sgt. Suess answered.

—-

Had the shooting not occurred during the legislative session, a lot would have been different. But with the legislature open and passionate MSD students and parents demanding change, state representatives couldn’t get away with doing nothing.  Governor Rick Scott signed into law the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act in March which in part called for the establishment of a commission to investigate the shooting. The commission began meeting in April but gained little attention until recently when information directly related to the day of the shooting came out; information that as already led to controversial repercussions for people involved.

After Superintendent Robert Runcie promised the commission that he’d take disciplinary action against school staff, he reassigned three assistant principals and a security specialist who were on campus on the day of the shooting. Specific reasons why they were reassigned were not offered other than the fact that they were reportedly told in a letter from Runcie that they were being moved “pending investigation.” The decision was met with protests by students and teachers asking Runcie not to “revictimize them” by taking away people they trust. Many inside of MSD saw the ousters as unfair scapegoating on the part of Runcie.

Some parents of the deceased, however, are less sympathetic. Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jamie died in the shooting, said the decision was long overdue. Ryan Petty, who is a member of the commission and the father of shooting victim, Alaina, said that Runcie’s actions were a start.

But the commission isn’t sympathetic toward anyone on campus that day who they felt responded improperly to the shooting. The initial draft of the commission’s report criticized school staff and police officers with the same strength and the wording of their criticisms only got stronger as they revised their findings and recommendations sentence by sentence. By January, the actions of everyone who played a part in handling the catastrophe will be clearly laid out and scrutinized like pawns on a chess board.

—-

A red dot marked “Medina” slowly rides up the east side of the campus as a black dot marked “Cruz” creeps in from the right side of the screen. Campus monitor, Andrew Medina, had finished unlocking the campus gates for the end of the school day when he saw the shooter arrive in an Uber. The shooter walked in through an unlocked gate, carrying what Medina would describe to the BSO as a “nice-sized duffle bag”. Medina said that ROTC students carry similar bags and the shooter wore his ROTC shirt from his days on campus. But it was not a duffel bag. It was a rifle bag.

The red dot speeds up as it approaches the black dot heading toward building 12. Medina hopped in his golf cart and drove toward the shooter as he radioed another campus monitor, David Taylor, about a “suspicious kid” on campus. According to Medina, most students aren’t ashamed of skipping classes. They don’t keep their head down. They don’t hide their face. As Medina reached the east door of building 12, the shooter looked directly at him. Medina recognized the student but not by name; just as “that crazy kid” from last year. As he looked at the shooter, Taylor asked over radio what door the intruder was entering. Medina answered that it was the east door and then turned the golf cart around. He would tell BSO, “Something inside me told me not to approach him.” He also expressed concern that the shooter may have had a handgun in his pocket.

The red dot stops for about 15 seconds. Medina debated what to do next. As he debates, the shooter enters the building. Medina eventually chooses to go back to building 12 to check on Taylor. As he headed back, he heard several “loud bangs” from the building.

A green dot marked “Peterson” fades into view.

Then Deputy Scot Peterson was the only deputy working on the campus the day of the shooting. Another deputy would have been working at the middle school adjacent to MSD had he not been receiving training elsewhere that day.  Peterson was in his office when the shooter entered building 12. He would tell BSO that he heard a call from Medina on his radio about “possible firecrackers” in the 1200 building. He then met up with Security Specialist, Kelvin Greenleaf, and the two looked for a golf cart. He told BSO that when they found no golf cart, he told Greenleaf that something felt wrong, prompting the duo to run to building 12. Peterson claimed he ran the whole way and that upon arrival the gunfire sounded like it was coming from outside the building.

Peterson lied. He and Greenleaf did find a golf cart and took time trying to get its key. Being unsuccessful, they left the building walking. Greenleaf was the first to start running and then Peterson followed suit.

The red and the green dots combine with another red dot and speed toward building 12. Medina picked the two men up and drove them to building 12. Greenleaf who was on the back of the golf cart said that Medina and Peterson had a conversation but that he could not hear what they were saying. Medina told BSO that he gave Peterson a description of the shooter, but Peterson told fellow officers over radio when they arrived on the scene that there was no description of the shooter.

The red dot leaves the green and red dots at building 12. Peterson and Greenleaf were dropped at the east door of building 12. Greenleaf is unarmed when the two dash away from the door and behind a concrete structure. Peterson pulls out his gun as he communicates with other officers and the deputies about shutting down the campus and the nearby intersection. He waves a group of clueless students away from the scene.

The green dot does not move. The shooter is methodically making his way across hallways, shooting through classroom door windows one by one as Peterson hides behind the concrete structure. Had Peterson entered the building, he may have been able to catch the shooter before he went to the third floor. Six people died there. Peterson never entered the building; not even as other officers and deputies grouped together and entered.

He didn’t move at all for the next 47 minutes.

—-

Peterson had spent 28 of his 32 years in BSO as a school resource officer (SRO); nearly a decade at MSD. In 2015, he testified before the Broward County School Board about the Resident on Campus Security (ROCS) program which assigned officers to live on or nearby a campus for security reasons. He had fulfilled this role when he worked at the Atlantic Technical Center. He approached the board with charisma, slipping in a joke every once awhile during his testimony.  He told the board a story about his time as a ROCS officer to illustrate the importance of the ROCS program. The cafeteria alarm at the Atlantic Techinical Center went off one Sunday morning while he was washing his car. “I knew when I heard cafeteria- You know where you get the hairs on the back of your neck going up?” he said. “I said, ‘That never goes off.’” He ran back in his trailer, grabbed his shorts, sneakers, ID and firearm and rushed to the cafeteria. When he arrived, there were four men trying to rob the place. They fled so Peterson gave chase. “I’m getting older, but I chased them,” Peterson joked. He chased them toward his trailer where he jumped in his car. He continued to pursue the men until he apprehended all of them. Peterson said that the success of the ROCS programs can’t be measured by statistical data. It’s measured in the small everyday successes. “I’m almost on my way out,” Peterson said. “I’m 30 years but you know, there are other police officers that, you know, made homes there and, you know, are a part of that community. We’re all here for the same reason: To protect our kids.”

Nearly three years later, he’d be asked to turn in his badge for his actions in the Parkland shooting or give up all his retirement benefits. He’d retire.

When BSO interveiwed Peterson about his response to the shooting, the security footage taken at the school was in Quantico being analyzed by the FBI so they had no reason to believe that certain details of his story were lies. When they saw the footage, they asked him for a second interveiw. Peterson refused.

The summer of that same year, Peterson spoke with the Washington Post and Today, but neither of them addressed all the lies he told. The Post article described Peterson as a recluse hiding in his apartment with his girlfriend, obsessively pouring over documents as he tries to figure what he did wrong during the shooting. The article paints a scene where Peterson watches a video similar to the one presented to the commission. It shows a black arrow moving from classroom to classroom. Green dots turn to yellow as victims are shot. Yellow dots turn to gray as people die. Peterson told the Post that it helped him to see the shooting unfold in such an orderly manner.

Peterson claims that it wasn’t cowardice but tactics that kept him behind the wall. He claimed that he believed the shooter was somewhere outside and that he hid behind the structure because it was a prime location to search for a sniper. He believed that the shooter may have been sniping out a window “like in the Las Vegas shooting”, but this version of the story is full of contradictions.

While Peterson claims that he believed the shots were coming from outside, he mentions the 1200 building three times to deputies over the radio. “We also heard its by, inside the 1200 building,” he broadcasted. Savannah Guthrie, the reporter with Today, asked why he would say this unless he knew the shooter was inside building 12.

“Because I believed there was as sniper,” Peterson answered, pointing to a map of the school toward building 12. “So in my mind, I’m thinking to myself that there might be somebody up in there shooting out but I didn’t think they were shooting at the kids. I thought they were shooting out at the building from the outside.”

“But I guess that’s the hard part,” Guthrie responds. “If I’m parent whose child died in that building and you do think there’s a shooter inside, why aren’t you going inside?”

“Well, because, Savanah, I didn’t know if it was in there,” Peterson answers. “I didn’t know if it was outside.”

“Why not check it out?” Guthrie asks.

“What I was trained to do is that you contain the area,” Peterson answered.

This is untrue. Peterson was not trained to contain the area. At some point before Columbine, he may have been taught to hold back the shooter until the SWAT team arrives, but his nearly two decades of extensive training since then would have taught him to confront the shooter himself.

Peterson claimed that he only heard two to three shoots, saying that the hurricane proof windows in building 12 made it difficult to hear much of anything. But other witnesses clearly heard the shots and body camera footage captured the sound all the way out by Holmberg Road. Peterson’s claim that he was diligently searching for the shooter does not hold water either. Had he been looking, he would have seen the shooter limping down the empty sidewalk, making his escape.

The commission didn’t buy his story for a second. In their minds, hiding behind that wall provided no tactical solutions to any problem faced that day.

There may however be a glimmer of truth to Peterson’s story. He told Today, “I know I didn’t violate any policy or procedure. I’ve been with the agency 32 years. I know the policies. I know the procedures.”

That part might actually be true.

—-

One of Ryan Petty’s favorite memories with his daughter, Alaina, was firing their favorite gun, the AR-15, at gun ranges. In a twisted irony, Alaina would be killed with that same weapon in yet another shooting which prompted suggestions of an AR-15 ban. Petty has said that after much soul-searching, he still does not support banning the weapon.  In so many ways, he doesn’t fit into the increasingly pro-gun control culture that has permeated discussions in Parkland. This might explain why his run for the Broward County school board as a Republican in the predominately Democratic Broward County was unsuccessful. But tragedy transcends party lines and Petty as been able to find common ground with those on the other side of the aisle time and time again.

In mid-December, the commission began revising all findings and recommendations presented in the initial draft of their report sentence by sentence. One such finding dealt with the BSO active shooter policy which states that a deputy “may” confront the shooter. This is in contrast to the policy of the CSPD which states that an officer “shall” confront the shooter. The slight difference of verbiage may have been irrelevant had the performance of both agencies had not also been vastly different. While CSPD was slower to respond to the scene than BSO because they had received information later, they were quicker to enter building 12 when arriving on the scene.

Petty spoke up when this finding was put on the table for revisions.  “There is one reason and one reason alone that BSO has the word ‘may’ in their active shooter policy. And we heard testimony from Sheriff Israel himself who said he put the word ‘may’ in there,” Petty said. “Whether we as a commission want to act on that as a finding or not, I do want to say on the record unequivocally that the reason ‘may’ is in there is because Sheriff Israel has put that in there.” It’s not surprising that Petty wanted Sheriff Scott Israel’s reputation on the chopping block. He already came out in support of fellow Republican and governor-elect, Ron DeSantis’s, campaign promise to remove the sheriff from his post because of BSO’s performance in the Parkland shooting.

When he gave his testimony to the commission, Sheriff Israel anticipated that they would ask about “may” and often referred to his notes over the course of his answer as if his response was prepared well ahead of time. It was the first question he was asked. “’May’ allows a deputy discretion,” Sheriff Israel answered. “It allows a deputy to think on his or her feet. ‘May’ allows a deputy to be armed with real-time intelligence, carrying out a mission, preparing, if you will, to answer the east side door.” Israel went on to give an example of a deputy who is told that the east door is booby-trapped. ‘May’ according to Israel would allow that deputy to go around and find a new way in instead of going on a “suicide mission”. The commission didn’t buy the reasoning. “May” also allowed BSO deputies to spent well over a minute putting on bullet proof vests as the shooter fired his last shots and escaped from the building. “May” could have allowed Peterson to hide behind a wall for 47 minutes.

When the argument resurfaced during draft revisions, multiple members spoke out against it. “’May’ gave them the out not to enter because it pushed the responsibility back to them to make the decision and they decided to be cowards instead of going in and being heroes,” Sheriff Grady Judd said. “He doesn’t expect people to go blindly into suicide missions. Neither do we,” fellow commissioner, Mike Carroll, would later add. “I expect them to respond according to their training and I would expect them to make assessments. But in this case, Peterson made no assessments, he ran, hid and stood there for the entire incident.”

The commission members wordsmithed over how strong their case against the use of the word “may” would be for several minutes. Instead of calling “may” “ambiguous”, they wanted it called “insufficient”. Instead of “does not” convey the expectation that deputies confront a shooter, they wanted “fails to”. Whatever the wording, Petty wanted it on the record that “may” was Sheriff Israel’s fault and that he should held be accountable for it.

With DeSantis in office, he may have to.

—-

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri traveled back and forth from the opposite coast to be the chairman of the commission. He sits directly across from the podium in the center of his table. He often acts as the voice of reason when emotions get hot during meetings, reminding commission members of relevant context as they launch harsh criticisms against school and law enforcement officials.

An openly Republican Sheriff in his second term, it’s easy to assume that Sheriff Gualtieri’s presence in the predominantly progressive Parkland would present a challenge. However, the Sheriff rarely cares what anyone thinks of him in spite of his party affiliation. His recent statements about the Stand Your Ground law upset people from both sides. After Micheal Drejka shot Markeis McGlockton over a parking space, Sheriff Gualtieri’s office didn’t make an arrest. He said he wanted to but that the Stand Your Ground law tied his hands. Marion Hammer, Florida’s most prominent representative of the National Rifle Association, said that the Sheriff was plain wrong about the law; a law she was partly responsible for bringing to the light. Al Sharpton, a leftist TV personality, called for the Sheriff to make the arrest or turn in his badge. When confronted with Mr. Sharpton’s harsh words at a press conference, Sheriff Gualtieri said that he didn’t think anything of it. He paused, seemingly trying to contain himself before adding that Mr. Sharpton “should mind his own business.”

He is now in the hot seat again for his opinions. Because of his support of expanding the guardian program, the media has painted Gualtieri as yet another Republican who wants to put guns in the hands of teachers. One reason for this: the National Rifle Association has been advocating for a program like since 2013.

The guardian program allows school staff members such as safety monitors, librarians and janitors to volunteer for extensive firearms and self-defense training as well as psychological evaluation. Upon completion of the training and with the approval of both the sheriff and their school supervisors, a guardian can carry a concealed weapon on a school campus and can confront a shooter if one attacks the campus. Currently, the program requires a local sheriff to facilitate the training and creation of the program. While Gualtieri uses the program in Pinellas county, many sheriffs are advised against it by their insurance companies and opt out for fear of getting sued. Sheriff Judd pushed the commission to vote to recommend that the state legislature require sheriffs to facilitate the program for schools that want it, regardless of insurance concerns.

Gualtieri’s views on the guardian program evolved over the course of the commission’s work. He came in, disagreeing with many of his Republican counterparts who wanted teachers to be armed on the school campus. But on the evening of December 12th, he argued fervently that teachers be allowed to carry guns on the campus as part of the guardian program.

In many ways, the guardian program is a direct response to the actions of Scot Peterson. While Peterson was largely deemed a coward, many of the teachers and MSD staff members were considered heroes.  By that the time that Peterson arrived at the east door, Coach Chris Hixon was entering the building with the intent to take action. He was shot in the legs and crawled across the floor before the shooter executed him. On the third floor, a teacher, Ernest Rospierski, put himself in harm’s way to funnel students into safe classrooms and a nearby stairwell. A study of past school shooting presented to the commission indicated that most shootings are not stopped by cops. This is not because all cops act similarly to Peterson but because they can never arrive fast enough to the scene. Even if Peterson had elected to go into the building and confront the shooter, he would have been too late to defend the first and second floor. Gualtieri believes that a guardian who was already in that building would have been better positioned to act immediately because a guardian does not have to wait for the cops to arrive while children die.

“There are teachers, there are school personnel, there are staff that have the mindset, that have the willingness, that have the fortitude, that have the ability to be that person that reacts because cops can not be there all the time,” Gualtieri concluded. He argued that SROs are not enough and that schools need more guardians; guardians they will not have if they do not allow teachers to participate in the program.

Max Schachter spoke out against the recommendation. “I understand the Sheriff’s point that we do need more good guys with a gun on campus,” Schachter said. “And nobody understands that wish that we had more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas than myself and the other commissioner on this task force, Commissioner Petty, but I would be in favor of arming certain personnel; for instance, assistant principals. I do not think teachers should be carrying guns. I think they have enough on their plate.”

Schachter illustrated his point with a story about an experiment in Israel in which teachers were supposedly given guns to protect their schools but ultimately returned their guns after raising concern that they may end up in the wrong hands. Gualtieri felt the story misrepresented his recommendation in the same way he felt the media had been misrepresenting it in weeks prior. The guardian program, Gualtieri argues, does not give teachers guns, nor does it give guns to every teacher who would want one. The guardian program trains and arms certain teachers who show an interest in the program and who are selected by school supervisors and the sheriff.

Gualtieri’s concern for the guardian program was that certain districts have not allowed schools to make the most use of it. “Why?” the sheriff asked Schachter rhetorically. “Because it’s ideological, philosophical… Because they just don’t like it. Well, as you don’t, I don’t like dead kids.”

Ryan Petty agreed with the sheriff, citing that many MSD teachers interveiwed for the commission indicated the desire to be allowed to carry on the campus. “I guess I was a bit surprised by the response of the teachers at MSD,” he said. “But I think that one of the more compelling things to me is that those teachers were defenseless sitting in those classrooms along with those students at the wrong end of a semi-automatic rifle. And to not give them the opportunity to protect themselves is a disservice to the teachers.”

“One more comment,” Schachter responded. “You know, all the teachers I’ve spoke to recommended that I not support arming teachers. I didn’t hear from any teachers that were in favor of it, but I am probably the most disappointed is that we did not hear testimony from the ‘safest school in America’ – that’s been called that on NBC News – and is a solution to the problem without having to arm teachers and that was they have smoke cannons. They fill up the hallways with smoke and the active assailant cannot see the victims in a matter of seconds.” Schachter argued that the smoke canons were one of several ways to protect kids without arming teachers.

The vote was taken shortly thereafter. Schachter was the only dissenting vote.

—-

Much of the commission’s discussions came back to Peterson. His decision not to enter the building was viewed as the most monumental and disappointing. The narrative of his cowardice in light of teachers’ bravery was the driving force behind expanding the guardian program. To this date, Peterson has never answered formally for the lies he told BSO following the shooting. He had been subpoenaed to testify before the commission and his lawyer indictated that he would arrive, but there was skepticism as to whether or not he’d actually show his face.

On November 15th, Sheriff Gualtieri called for Peterson to approach the podium. Instead, a man with the air of a classic Miami lawyer – nice suit, bow tie, hair slicked back – approached the commission with a fat brown file in hand. “Hello, my name is Joseph DiRuzzo. I represent Scot Peterson,” he said. “As you can see Mr. Peterson is not here. Mr. Peterson will not be testifying today. Earlier this morning, I filed a three count complaint seeking to squash this commission’s subpoena, declare the actions illegal and to hold certain members liable for abuse of process. I have copies of the complaint here.” DiRuzzo placed the file on the table next to the podium. “I will leave them. Please have your attorneys or attorney reach out to me for service. And I thank you for your time.”

As DiRuzzo left, Fred Guttenberg shouted from the audience, “He didn’t do his job. My daughter should still be alive.”

“Okay, if y’all would have Mr. Runcie come on down and we’ll move on to his testimony,” Sheriff Gualtieri said. It seemed for a moment that Gualtieri wasn’t going to address DiRuzzo’s words, but after some silence he spoke up. He told those present that DiRuzzo himself had indicated that Peterson would show up and that this was the first anyone in the commission had ever heard he would not be appearing.

“I might highlight for the record, he (DiRuzzo) not only showed up here and said Mr. Peterson wouldn’t attend, but he also informed us we were all being sued,” Sheriff Judd interjected. “And that’s always warm, makes you feel real good.”

“Get in line,” Gualtieri scoffed.

“Like I care,” Judd added.

“Yeah,” Gualtieri grumbled. “Like I care.”

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