Broward Deputies, School Staff Performance Scrutinized At Stoneman Douglas Hearing

Nov 15, 2018

Day two of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission hearings began with an examination of the blueprints of the school—a breakdown of whether architecture and building materials were a factor in the February massacre of 17 people there—and ended with public anger at the more disturbing examination of how Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies remained away from the school that day instead of moving toward the shooting.

The meeting started promptly at 8:30 a.m. with a presentation on the school’s physical space, led by Detective Walter Bonasaro of the Pinellas County Sheriff's office.

By PowerPoint, Bonasaro went into great detail about the school's doors. He flipped through slides: here, an aerial map of where the gates were unlocked and unattended; here, an exterior photograph of the maroon doors the alleged murderer, Nikolas Cruz, used to enter building 1200, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle; here another set of  maroon doors--the ones used by Coach Aaron Feiss to help students just before he was shot and killed.

Then there were the panes of glass in the metal classroom doors. The windows were 8 inches wide on the doors in the 1200 building where so many students died, and only 5 inches wide in the older buildings. Those extra three inches would have given a shooter more range to see inside the classrooms.

At one point, the commissioners questioned the wisdom of drywall--which didn't stop the bullets--as a classroom building material.

The parsing of blueprints led to suggestions for commission recommendations. One commissioner suggested window panes on doors be moved opposite the door handles—preventing attackers from busting out a window and unlocking the door from the inside. Several others suggested that in the future, classrooms have clearly marked "hard corners"--the space behind a door and against a wall where a shooter can't see in from the outside.

Stoneman Douglas teacher Ivy Schamis later recalled those as one of her biggest fears as she protected students inside her classroom the day of the shooting.

“I was cowering in the corner waiting for a hand to come right through,” Schamis told the commission members, “and all you had to do was reach your hand into that - into that window and open the door.”

Later in the morning, Sergeant John Suess gave a presentation on the confessed shooter's cell phone history. He saved an armory of gun photos, recorded monologues of his plans to kill people at school, racist memes, and pictures of mutilated animals. He obsessively texted an ex-girlfriend. He watched videos glorifying school shootings.

Suess described a frightening search history:

"Specifically: 'how long does it take for a cop to show up at a school shooting?' He identified a school shooting in Finland. And then searched the phrase 'I want to die.'"

Days before the murders, he also searched the phrase, "therapist for homicidal."

LAW ENFORCEMENT RESPONSE

The second half of the day was given over to the play-by-play of law enforcement's response. The commission watched a bird's-eye animation of the crucial minutes before and after the massacre on campus. They watched the movement of dots through a map of the school—dots representing the shooter, first responders and some of the children who were harmed. The animation was reinforced with security footage and emergency calls.

The audience in the public seating area held their hands over their faces, chewed their nails, fidgeted in their seats. Some sat perfectly still. In the moments between recordings of 911 calls, as the dots silently floated through the map on screen, the whole room felt as if it were holding its breath.

Special attention was paid to the dot representing the school resource officer, Scot Peterson, which approached building 12 and retreated to a space between buildings 7 and 8. The commissioners chewed over his choices. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Peterson was a cop in name only.

"If you were a real human being, you would have gone in," said commissioner Lauren Book. There were nods in agreement.

Suess raised another big concern later in the afternoon: school staff training, or the lack of it, for active shooter situations. He presented videos and photos that suggested many staff had inexplicably directed students back toward the school campus, even when a code red had been announced over the school’s PA and radio security systems.

“It’s a lack of training,” Suess told the commission. “They weren’t drilled enough...They were not well trained on what to do.”

Suess also pointed out that Peterson and other veteran BSO officers at the scene had not had active shooter training in the past year before the Parkland shooting. (Peterson’s last training had been almost two years prior.) Commission members pointed out that many of the officers seemed to be directing traffic near the school instead of moving toward the school and the shooting.

Suess’s report prompted bitter public comment afterward. Among those who addressed the commission was Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jamie was killed in the shooting.

“Here’s my concern,” said Guttenberg. “I’ve lost my belief in heroes. Because they didn’t show up on the day I needed them most.”