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A Solid Study Of A Mass Tragedy

Robert Runcie speaking to Parkland demonstrators
Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, Feb. 17, 2018. Photo by Flickr user Barry Stock.

Ten months after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the state-appointed commission assigned to study it has issued its draft report, and it tells us things we need to hear, whether we want to listen or not.

Last February, I suggested that we study mass shootings the way we study other disasters, with a focus on how to prevent or mitigate such events in the future while setting aside emotional responses as much as possible. Based on the report, the 20-member commission seems to have done just that.

The 407-page report identified several instances in which school security or law enforcement procedures could have been more effective. School staff could have more quickly activated the existing “Code Red” procedures; some staff members left doors unlocked that could have impeded the shooter’s progress; and the school had not previously marked or cleared “hard corners” where students could effectively hide. The commission also called for the school district to investigate whether Principal Ty Thompson violated policy by not ensuring he was personally involved in the threat assessment process. The report emphasized, too, the need for greater communication between various agencies, which might have more effectively identified the threat the shooter posed based on his previous behavior.

The commission chose mainly to suggest improvements that can be implemented quickly and relatively inexpensively, ultimately backing away from more costly options such as installing metal detectors. Many of the report’s recommendations will attract little controversy, other than perhaps over how to finance and implement them. Yet one will get a lot of attention, and considerable pushback: the recommendation to allow teachers and other staff who volunteer and are properly trained to bring firearms to school.

Rep. Ted Deutsch, my own congressman, immediately offered such pushback, by making the irrelevant and dogmatic observation that “Teachers want to teach, not be armed for combat in their classrooms.” He added that “Law enforcement cannot push their responsibilities to make our communities safer on to civilians that should be focused on educating their students.” The proposal would require the Legislature’s approval, meaning that those who feel as Deutsch does will have an opportunity to try to sway the state representatives. I hope they don’t succeed.

When a seriously disturbed young man is prowling a high school corridor shooting anyone he sees, nobody is focused on anything other than survival. As Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a member of the commission, observed: “In the ideal world, we shouldn’t need anyone on campus with a gun, but that’s not the world we live in today.” What teachers want to focus on does not matter in this context. The only thing that should matter is the most practical ways to avoid mass shootings, and the best ways to stop them as quickly and with as little loss of life as possible when they do occur.

Allowing volunteer teachers or staff members to access firearms may also bridge the gap when law enforcement fails, as it did in Parkland. Broward Sherriff’s Office Deputy Scot Peterson not only failed to confront the Parkland shooter, but is still doing everything he can to avoid coming face to face, in court or elsewhere, with the parents whose children died in the shooting. Peterson’s lawyers went so far as to contend in court that this sworn, armed peace officer had no legal duty to put himself at risk to protect the children and staff at the school where he was stationed for that purpose. The judge, rightly, rejected this argument. If anyone ever starts a Law Enforcement Hall of Shame, Peterson is likely to be in the first class of inductees.

The commission decided not to call for the removal of Peterson’s boss, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. (Peterson resigned in late February.) But Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis called for Israel’s removal as part of his campaign and has appointed many of Israel’s harshest critics to his transition team. The commission did recommend that the Broward Sheriff’s Office conduct an internal review of the seven deputies at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, including Peterson, who heard shots and failed to engage the shooter. The report noted that other deputies did respond properly, but that widespread miscommunication and confusion about the shooter’s location hindered their efforts.

Even at its best, law enforcement cannot be everywhere. If Peterson had courageously raced into that hallway to confront the shooter, he would have been too late to save some of the victims. And schools in more rural areas must often face the reality that even the most heroic first responders may not arrive fast enough to keep everyone safe. In the Parkland shooting, 21 people were shot in the first minute and 39 seconds of the attack; of those, nine were shot fatally. Those victims might have survived if there was anyone else on that campus authorized to carry a firearm. That’s the reality.

Responses like Deutsch’s show how hard it will be to absorb and implement the lessons of events like Parkland, but we have to try. The commission’s initial report is a good place to start.

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