Scott Travis

Scott TravisContact ReporterSouth Florida Sun Sentinel

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High has fences, gates and emergency procedures to keep students safe, but a determined gunman found a way around them.

He came when he knew the gates would be open and set off a fire alarm that would dismantle a safety system, officials say. And the school resource officer, who is supposed to help protect students, may not have been on school grounds at the time.

Accused gunman Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from the school for behavioral problems, arrived on campus about 20 minutes before the school day ended.

That’s the time school officials usually open the gates around campus so students and staff parked in various parking lots, as well as school buses and parents picking up their kids, can get out easily, said Jerry Graziose, the district’s former director of school safety.

“During the day, those areas locked. But when you’re getting ready for kids to leave, all the gates in the different areas have to be unlocked, and it takes a few minutes for the person doing that,” Graziose said.

Once a person gets onto campus, they have access to a number of classroom buildings, which are often unlocked so that students can easily get to their classes.

Graziose said a similar dilemma exists at the start of the school day, when large numbers of students are entering campus, and many parents are dropping their kids off.

Once the shooting began, the school went into a procedure known as Code Red, where doors are automatically locked and students and staff are required to stay in their classrooms. But Cruz pulled the fire alarm, which overrides a Code Red, said Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association.

As a result, doors that would have otherwise remained shut were being opened by students, making it easier for the gunman to find victims, experts say.

Cruz shot victims in seven classrooms in Building 12, a three-story building on the north side of campus, Broward Sheriff’s Office officials say.

Grazioze, who retired from the school district in 2015, said he recommended upgrades to fire alarm systems so that the entire school doesn’t have to evacuate when someone pulls an alarm. He said there have been numerous problems with kids pulling false alarms as pranks.

There are systems available that will give the office 40 seconds to determine whether an emergency is real before sounding a school-wide alarm, Graziose said. The system could also be overhauled so that fire alarm levers are installed only in rooms where large numbers of people gather, such as auditoriums and libraries, rather than in every hallway.

The district included an $908,000 upgrade to fire alarm systems at Stoneman Douglas as part of the 2014 bond referendum approved by voters. The work was supposed to be completed by 2016, but it was delayed and is now included as part of a $10 million overall renovation to the school. The district expects to hire a vendor in July.

The only person trained and armed to fight back against an assailant at Stoneman Douglas is its one school resource officer, a Broward Sheriff’s deputy funded by the city of Parkland. But Maxwell said she doesn’t think he was on campus when the shooting happened.

“I have been told by a couple of sources that the SRO was either called off campus responding to something happening or it could have been his day off,” she said. “They are stretched very thin.”

Neither BSO nor school district officials responded to requests for comment Thursday about where the officer was at the time. On Friday, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said he was told by BSO officials that an officer was at the school but on a different part of campus.

The massacre at Stoneman Douglas, the largest school shooting since Sandy Hook in 2012, is prompting other school districts to review their security plans.

Palm Beach County officials are meeting with the county fire marshal to see “if there is anything we can do differently around fire alarms,” said Donald Fennoy, chief operating officer for that district.

He said the district has temporarily suspended all emergency drills, to avoid making kids feeling anxious.

Fennoy said his district tries to anticipate any potential emergency scenario but there’s no way to guarantee a tragedy won’t occur.

“Our faculty and staff and police officers do a herculean job. But the evidence is very clear if someone is determined to do something, it becomes a challenge, and it causes us a lot of angst,” he said.