Despite an extraordinary series of governmental failures leading to the bloodshed in Parkland, just a few low-level employees have faced consequences over errors that may have cost lives.
But not the school administrators who failed to act on warnings of weak security at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, or the ones who mismanaged gunman Nikolas Cruz’s special education needs when he was a student there. Not the sheriff’s deputies who took cover while children were shot, or their supervisors. And, by all indications, no one at the FBI, which fumbled compelling, back-to-back tips about Cruz in the months before his rampage.
“There were so many mistakes,” said Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine, whose district includes Stoneman Douglas. “I don’t feel there’s been sufficient accountability. But more importantly, the people that live in northwest Broward, my neighbors and friends, don’t feel there’s been accountability.”
Cruz, who has confessed, clearly deserves the most blame for the Feb. 14 shooting. And the easy availability of firearms in Florida played a role in an attack in which the gunman stalked the halls with a high-capacity rifle and fired into classrooms, killing 17 and wounding 17.
But at the agencies charged with keeping Broward County’s schools safe, where leaders have been quick to pat themselves on the back for their work, few people have suffered consequences for multiple errors that have come to light since the shooting.
Stoneman Douglas Principal Ty Thompson and his assistant principals, who presided over security lapses that made it easier for the shooter to kill students, were on hand to welcome students to the new school year.
“The fact that the school board has the principal and head of security who were in place at the time still in place is completely beyond me and any of the families,” said Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, was killed in the attack. “It’s true there were a multitude of issues that led up to this. But at a minimum they should have been removed a long time ago, pending an investigation.”
Failures at the scene
In the days immediately after the shooting, journalists reported missteps by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, many of them now affirmed and augmented by the state commission investigating the shootings.
Longtime School Deputy Scot Peterson, the first law enforcement officer on the scene and the one with the greatest opportunity to stop the gunman, instead took cover outside until well after the killer had left. Sheriff Scott Israel allowed him to retire with his pension of $8,702 a month.
Other deputies hid behind their cars instead of rushing into the school. Even the first supervisor to arrive, Sgt. Brian Miller, stayed well away from the scene, despite hearing shots.
“He sat up on Holmberg Road for 10 minutes,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the state commission investigating the shooting. “He heard gunshots and he didn’t move. He never got on the radio. He was the first supervisor on the scene, and he never moved, even after deputies and officers were going into that building.”
Capt. Jan Jordan, the sheriff’s Parkland district commander, was “overwhelmed,” a Coconut Creek Deputy Chief Greg Lees told commission investigators. “I could see it,” he said. “I tried to help her.”
Sheriff’s Lt. Stephen O’Neill described Jordan’s manner of speech during the crisis as “dream-like” and called the command structure “ineffective” and “not engaged with the problem.”
The commission lays the largest amount of blame at the feet of Scot Peterson, but has also underscored an issue of higher-level concern at the Sheriff’s Office — the quality and quantity of mass shooter training that Israel provided for his officers.
“It wasn’t sufficient,” said commission chairman Gualtieri.
Sheriff Israel, in testimony last week to the commission, defended his deputies and officers, saying they didn’t know an active shooter was still on campus.
That isn’t true, the commission found: Eight deputies arrived in time to hear shots but didn’t go in after the shooter, according to a report prepared by the state commission’s investigators.
None have been disciplined.
Israel said he would review the commission’s report and take swift action against any deputies or officers who “chose a path of inaction.”
Israel has acknowledged but one act of discipline related to Parkland so far. The sheriff’s office gave wrist-slaps to two deputies who had previously received specific tips about Cruz’s plans and dropped them after half-hearted attempts to investigate.
Edward Eason, an 18-year veteran, checked a tip from a woman about an Instagram photo of Cruz with guns, knives and words in which he said he planned to commit a school shooting when he turned 18. The deputy told the woman that Cruz had a First Amendment right to make the post, and when she asked if there were a way to stop him from buying guns, the law enforcement officer cited the Second Amendment.
Deputy Guntis Treijs, a 19-year veteran, checked a tip from another woman that Cruz was collecting guns and knives and writing on social media about a desire to kill himself. Although he looked up Cruz on a police database, he missed the fact that deputies had been to the family’s house dozens of times. Since Cruz had by then moved to Lake Worth, he advised the woman to contact the Lake Worth police.
Eason received a three-day suspension and Treijs a reprimand, but neither deputy was sanctioned for botching the investigations. Their error, supervisors said, was failing to produce written reports.
“Ultimately, with any sheriff, anything that happens is their responsibility, and I don’t think any sheriff can take the position that, well, it didn’t reach me,” Gualtieri said in an interview. “You don’t get to do that as a sheriff. The buck stops with you, period, end of story. If it’s good, it’s good, if it’s bad, it’s bad, and you own it.”
But Israel remains in place, despite calls for Gov. Rick Scott to suspend him and an embarrassing CNN interview in which the sheriff touted his own “amazing leadership” to an incredulous Jake Tapper. His deputies continue to patrol the Stoneman Douglas campus.
“I just found it beyond belief that they had put BSO back in,” said Robert Vanderbeck, a youth soccer coach from Coral Springs who had coached kids from Stoneman Douglas.
“The negligence of the BSO in responding to the innumerable calls about the highly dysfunctional behavior that Cruz exhibited, the unmitigated gall of Scott Israel to take credit for the great leadership and ‘heroic’ BSO in these operations is beyond my comprehension,” he said in an email. “I don’t know how the parents of the dead and wounded from MSD can even contain themselves around him.”
Security risks ignored
Experts told administrators at Stoneman Douglas about security deficiencies, but theyfailed to correct them.
Special education teams made mistakes in dealing with Cruz, a student with severe difficulties who lost his special-education status, received incorrect counseling from school district personnel and eventually left the system, spiraling downward toward the day he would return to school with a rifle.
On a district level, there was no formal policy or training on calling a “Code Red,” an alarm of imminent danger that required an immediate lockdown of the campus. The hallways of the school lacked a public address system, making it impossible for fleeing students and teachers to hear instructions.
Security monitor Andrew Medina – who saw Cruz enter campus carrying a rifle bag – did not call a Code Red, the South Florida Sun Sentinel discovered. Medina and security monitor David Taylor, who hid in a closet after receiving a radio call about Cruz’s approach, lost their jobs.
Broward school superintendent Robert Runcie, who gave himself a rating of “highly effective” in a self-evaluation last month, announced last week that disciplinary proceedings against some of the school’s leaders could begin as early as this week, although some are skeptical he can act that soon.
Although candidates supported by bereaved Stoneman Douglas parents ran for school board with plans to fire Runcie, just one prevailed, and the superintendent retains the support of a majority of the board. Also remaining in place is the administration of Stoneman Douglas.
School board member Rosalind Osgood, a Runcie supporter, said it would be premature, unfair and harmful to morale for the district to take disciplinary action before all of the facts are in.
“I can’t just go have Mr. Runcie fire somebody because somebody makes an allegation,” she said. “When you talk to the teachers at the school, they don’t want a different administration because some of them feel a different administration wouldn’t understand or be sensitive to what they have experienced.”
Among the worst lapses involved a failure to act on a warning from a school district investigator, who conducted training at Stoneman Douglas. He identified a deficiency that would turn out to cost lives: a lack of safe areas in classrooms known as “hard corners.” These are classroom locations located at an angle that would be impossible to hit with gunfire from the doorway.
Just two teachers carried out his recommendation and marked out hard corners, but even they failed to clear furniture and other materials from them to allow them to be used as refuges, Gualtieri said. The lack of hard corners turned out to be crucial on the afternoon of Feb. 14, when Cruz fired his rifle into classrooms.
“There were kids that tried to get into the hard corners, but the hard corners were full,” Gualtieri said. “They couldn’t get in. They were full of junk. They were forced to stay outside them and some got shot.”
Brushing off warnings
A particularly serious accusation was leveled against Stoneman Douglas Assistant Principal Jeffrey Morford, who was criticized for brushing off warnings from students that Cruz could be a threat.
Although the head of the principals’ association pointed to contradictions in the account by the two students, the head of the state commission investigating the shooting found their accounts credible.
A student told commission investigators that he went with another student to Morford to report Cruz’s odd behavior, including researching guns on a school computer and remarking that he liked to “see people in pain.”
According to the student, Morford told him that he should Google the word “autism” and promised that he wouldn’t have to worry about Cruz because he was being withdrawn from the school. The other student recalled that they spoke with Principal Thompson.
Both Thompson and Morford deny that any such conversation took place. But Gualtieri said the two boys corroborated the significant details and that the commission’s investigators found them credible. Morford has not been disciplined.
Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association, noted the conflicts in the boys’ stories.
“None of these statements were taken under oath,” she said. “They were not deposed. These employees have a right to a thorough investigation.”
Maxwell called Runcie’s promise of discipline this week “ridiculous,” saying the district’s employee-protection rules would prevent him from taking immediate action.
“Employees have due process rights,” she said. “I don’t understand how he thinks in a week he can bypass all that. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
No one has been notified they’re the subject of an investigation, she said. “Frankly, there’s not been any finding whatsoever that anyone has done anything wrong from the administrative team in connection with the tragedy.”
The state commission investigating the shooting asked to district to avoid conducting its own investigation, in order to not interfere with the commission’s work, said school board member Osgood. The district must act carefully, she said, because school unions could fight any disciplinary actions. And she said many of the students returning this year wanted to be with the same school family that had been their family for years and that they endured the tragedy with.
“They feel they’re stronger getting through it together than with somebody who didn’t understand or experience it,” she said. “You have to try to be sensitive to everybody that’s involved. When you make decisions about staff and terminating people and those things, you have to have facts to do that with for legal reasons.”
Once the state commission issues its report, the school district will be in a position to take action, she said. But she said any action will be tempered by an awareness of who was really responsible.
“I don’t think we can blame someone for this other than Nikolas Cruz,” she said.
Shuffling Nikolas Cruz
During Cruz’s years in the Broward school district, some teachers and administrators worked hard to help the deeply troubled youth and others appeared eager to make him someone else’s problem.
After attending Cross Creek School in Pompano Beach, which serves children with emotional and social disorders, he was allowed to enroll at Stoneman Douglas. When he got in a fight his junior year, made suicidal remarks and wrote “kill” in a notebook, Stoneman Douglas administrators moved to send him back to Cross Creek. But he refused to go.
A Cross Creek exceptional-student education specialist made a serious mistake, steering Cruz to revoke his status as a special needs student as the only means to stay at Stoneman Douglas, which meant he no longer qualified for special help. An assistant principal pushed Cruz to transfer to an “off-campus learning center” to earn credits online, where he got no school counseling or special education services.
By all accounts, Cruz become more unmoored after his mother died in November 2017. He had no stable home, no obvious path to graduate and no girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. On Feb. 14, 2018, he walked through an open gate at Stoneman Douglas before dismissal time.
Administrators at Stoneman Douglas had been warned that open gates were a problem. Former Secret Service agent Steve Wexler had met in December 2017 with Assistant Principal Winfred Porter, the administrator overseeing campus security.
Wexler pretended to be an intruder and drove through an open gate unchallenged. Later, it emerged that the gates were routinely opened and unguarded 20 to 30 minutes prior to dismissal.
Wexler walked around with Post-it notes, numbered 1 to 20, that he handed to people or placed where bullets would land if he’d been armed. Afterwards, he met with Porter, a teacher, Assistant Principal Denise Reed and Kelvin Greenleaf, security specialist.
“It’s clear that they knew that was a vulnerability,” said Philip Schentrup, whose 16-year-old daughter, Carmen, was killed in the attack. “It’s clear that vulnerability was demonstrated to the staff at MSD. And it’s clear that they did nothing about it.”
The lax security allowed Cruz to carry out his plan with little trouble, he said.
“He walked into an open building with zero impediment,” he said. “He was able to unpack his firearm and begin shooting, with zero interference. How did this happen? It happened because people got lazy. They didn’t think it was going to happen in Parkland and the shooter knew that.”
“If someone didn’t do what’s right, yes, I want them held accountable,” he said. “If that means they get fired, absolutely. If the worst thing that happens to them — because they contributed to my daughter’s death — is that they have to find a new job, I have zero problem with that. You have to hold people accountable.”
Families of the murdered children, who had pressed for action months ago against those responsible for security lapses at the school, are waiting for Runcie to deliver on this promise of disciplinary action, now that he has details of the district’s errors.
“I would expect Superintendent Runcie to take appropriate action based on the outcome of the commission’s work,” said Lori Alhadeff, who successfully ran for school board after her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the attack.
But she said she would have wanted to see action taken sooner against some of the people involved, such as Kelvin Greenleaf, the school’s head of security.
“At least, he should have been put on a leave of absence,” she said.
No one is known to have been held accountable at the FBI, either, despite two bungled tips about Cruz’s intentions. After the shooting, the FBI apologized for mishandling the tips and conducted its own investigation, which it would not release.
FBI officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the tips line call center in Clarksburg, W. Va., declined to comment. “We do not comment on personnel and/or disciplinary matters,” said Steve Fischer, the FBI’s spokesman in Clarksburg.
The tips were detailed and, in hindsight, frighteningly accurate about the future killer’s plans.
“I am going to be a professional school shooter,” someone with the username “nikolas cruz” had commented on a YouTube video, in one tip that came to the FBI on Sept. 25 of last year, nearly five months before the shooting. The agency closed the investigation after 16 days, failing to determine the identity of the poster and never asking for the information from Google, which owns YouTube.
The second tip was exceptionally detailed. A friend of the Cruz family called and reported his disturbing web posts, his firearm purchases, his mutilation of small animals and her fears that he would be “getting into a school and just shooting the place up.”
That tip was never forwarded to the FBI’s South Florida office, and the file was closed as having “no lead value.”