Florida Massacre Commission Considers School Safety Plans

Dec 12, 2018

There were plenty of missteps in communication, security and school policy before and during the Florida high school massacre that allowed the gunman to kill 17 people. Now, the state commission investigating the shooting will consider a long list of recommendations addressing these problems statewide.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission will consider proposals Wednesday and Thursday, including whether to arm trained, volunteer teachers; making it harder for outsiders to enter Florida's nearly 4,000 public schools; mandating armed security on all campuses with explicit orders to confront shooters; improving communication systems on campus; and imposing more statewide uniformity in how troubled students are identified, helped and, if necessary, dealt with by police.

The commission, created weeks after the Feb. 14 shooting, must file its initial report to Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature by Jan. 1.

During its periodic meetings since April, the 15-member commission has learned the suspected gunman, former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, had a long history of disturbing behavior, including threats to shoot up the campus.

Minutes before the shooting, video shows Cruz entering campus through an unguarded gate and then into a classroom building. Investigators say he fired down the hallway and through door windows into first-floor classrooms where students didn't or couldn't hide. He climbed to the third floor to continue the attack, where students and teachers didn't know what happened two stories below.

That's because teachers couldn't quickly communicate with administrators, each other or law enforcement. Loudspeakers only could be heard inside classrooms. Teachers, trying to secure their classrooms, could only lock the doors from the outside.

The sheriff's deputy assigned to protect the campus didn't confront the killer and try to shoot him. There were no kits to stop the wounded's bleeding and the responding law enforcement officers from different agencies couldn't easily communicate over the radio to coordinate a counterattack and share information.

To address these problems, these are some of the proposals the commission is considering:

— Arming volunteer teachers: Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission's chairman, is pushing a proposal that would allow volunteer teachers who undergo extensive training to carry guns. He believes teachers had opportunities several times to shoot Cruz and save lives. The proposal is opposed by both the state teachers union and the PTA, who believe that would make schools more dangerous.

— Making schools harder to enter and safer if a shooting still occurs: All districts would be required to use the state's campus safety assessment program and districts would be penalized for failing to follow it. Schools would only have one entrance open during class hours and all gates would be staffed when students are arriving and leaving. Any school employee would be allowed to order a lockdown and all would carry panic buttons. Classroom doors would close and lock automatically. Teachers should be able to quickly cover door windows. Each classroom must have a clearly marked area that can't be seen from the door window and be kept free of immovable objects like large furniture. Schools would have kits to stop victims' bleeding. Loudspeakers should be added in hallways and outdoors so announcements can be heard throughout campus.

— Strengthening law enforcement: High and middle schools would have at least one sworn law enforcement officer on campus during class hours. Elementary schools must have at least one officer or armed security guard. Police officers would have the sole discretion to arrest students. Officers and guards would have explicit orders to confront shooters, even if alone. Officers would have radios that can easily communicate across agencies.

— Tighter student threat assessments: Loosen state and federal privacy laws to allow more sharing of information about troubled students. Mental health providers must report any threats made against a school. Students' mental health records would follow them between schools. Each school's threat assessment team would include teachers who know the students being discussed. State programs aimed at helping troubled children shouldn't abruptly end at 18.

The commission includes law enforcement, education and mental health professionals, a legislator and the fathers of two slain students. It will continue meeting after Jan. 1 and make further recommendations.

Cruz, now 20, has pleaded not guilty, but his lawyers have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.