On a warm and sunny Valentine’s Day afternoon about a year ago in Parkland, Florida, Nikolas Cruz, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who had been repeatedly suspended and finally expelled, took a quiet Uber ride to his old school.
After entering the 45-acre campus through an unlocked, unmanned entrance, Cruz loaded an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, put on a magazine vest, and began a six-minute shooting rampage. He shot and killed 14 students and three staff members, then abandoned his weapon and fled. It was the deadliest high school shooting in American history.
The horrific tragedy launched several studies and initiatives with congruent goals of determining what should be done to minimize the chances that a similar incident could occur in the future. These recent efforts contain no shortage of recommendations, but they also illustrate the complexity of the problem.
One particularly comprehensive study is the recently released initial report by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) Public Safety Commission. The report totals nearly 500 pages; its findings and recommendations are vast, and its conclusions grim. “Safety and security accountability is lacking in schools, and that accountability is paramount for effective change if we expect a different result in the future than what occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” the authors write.
Among other things, the report assesses physical security, school security policies, event response by law enforcement and others, and incident communications, as well as Cruz’s troubled history. (The report also pays tribute to the 17 victims killed in the shooting, featuring a bio and picture for each.) In the physical security section, for example, the report notes that Cruz entered the campus through an unstaffed gate, one of the many gates regularly left unlocked.
“The overall lack of uniform and mandated physical site security requirements resulted in voids that allowed Cruz initial access to MSDHS, and is a system failure,” the report finds.
The report also contains dozens of recommendations, including a proposal to allow teachers to carry guns by expanding the school’s Guardian program. Some of the recommendations would require action by the governor and state lawmakers, such as allowing school districts to raise taxes for security improvements.
To school security expert Jason Destein, the report’s scope and methodical analysis are both impressive and valuable. “They did an amazing job of providing all the information they could to let the public know,” says Destein, who is chair of the ASIS International School Safety and Security Council and owner of Securable Alternatives. “They say, ‘here are all the details, and the things that we should have seen but didn’t.’”
But Destein also notes that, when searching the report, the word “climate” appears only three times, while the word “legislature” pops up 19 times. “That’s one thing that really sticks out to me,” he says. “I think it is indicative of the country itself, and not just Florida—we are trying to spend and legislate our way to safer schools. But I don’t know if that’s getting to the heart of the problem.”
Getting to the heart of the problem, Destein continues, usually requires gathering actionable intelligence about the school, including data on its previous incidents, its security program, its culture, and more, that can be used to tailor a specific security program. But instead, some officials are making generalized information decisions based on the questionable belief that “the more money we can spend, the safer we will be,” he explains.
The Parkland shooting also sparked action from federal officials. “With three school-age children of my own, I am acutely sensitive to threats of school violence. What happened at Parkland should never happen in this country,” says Brian Harrell, CPP, the assistant director for infrastructure security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Harrell oversees federal efforts to help defend critical infrastructure from attacks. A few years ago, his mission expanded to include school security. “Many of the capabilities that we had developed for our infrastructure partners, such as active shooter awareness and preparedness training, can be readily adapted for use in schools,” says Harrell, who is also an ASIS International member.
In addition, the government encourages schools to review existing federal guidance materials, such as School Security: A Guide for Preventing and Protecting against Gun Violence and the Guide for Developing High Quality School Emergency Operations Plans, both issued by DHS.
“While each school will need to customize an active shooter preparedness plan that accounts for its unique circumstances, there are routine steps that are widely recommended,” Harrell says. Those steps include physically hardening the school, engaging in community planning, encouraging and facilitating suspicious behavior reporting, conducting training and exercises, maintaining effective communications systems, and establishing threat assessment teams, he explains.
The Parkland shooting also spurred officials to form the Federal Commission on School Safety to research and recommend school safety solutions. In December 2018, the commission released its 180-page final report, which is divided into three broad categories: preventing school violence; protecting students and teachers and mitigating the effects of violence; and responding to and recovering from attacks.
Each category contains best practice recommendations. For example, the first category on prevention features guidance on creating a positive school climate; improving access to mental health counseling; operating outreach programs for threat reports; and developing a media plan. “Improving school safety cannot focus solely on mitigating incidents of violence. Successful efforts must improve the culture in which students live and learn,” the authors write.
Destein says the federal report has many strengths, including the emphasis on school climate (the word “climate” appears more than 30 times in the DHS report, he adds). “I like the report. There is a lot of emphasis on prevention, which I am all for,” he says. But the challenge, he continues, is in trying to accurately measure climate. The report recommends climate surveys developed by the U.S. Department of Education, which may not be sufficient, he explains. “Surveys are great, but I don’t think surveys alone are enough,” Destein explains.
Here again, Destein says detailed data is needed on actual incidents that impact the true nature of school conditions, and this data can be used as actionable intelligence. “If you want to improve the school climate, you have to get some good information, and break these categories down to the lowest levels possible. It’s kind of like retail security,” he explains.
In its conclusions section, the federal report opposes age restrictions
on gun purchases but supports the possibility of denying certain individuals the ability to possess a firearm through the process of “extreme risk protection orders.”
And finally, the MSDHS report calls for more officials and administrators to recognize the exigency of the situation. “There must be a sense of urgency—and there is not, across the board—in enhancing school safety.”
The exhaustive MSDHS report contains 14 chapters of findings and recommendations. Virtually every aspect of the school’s response and security program was assessed. Here is one example—the critique of school’s camera surveillance system.
On the day of the shooting, dozens of exterior cameras were in use throughout the school’s 12 buildings and 45-acre campus, the report finds. However, external cameras did not capture Cruz’s arrival on campus as he walked across the parking lot to Building 12.
Thirteen cameras were located within Building 12—three on each floor at the east and west ends of the hall, and two located in each stairwell. However, there were no cameras located inside the classrooms in Building 12. A camera located in the east stairwell of Building 12 captured Cruz entering the building and preparing his weapon. It also captured a short exchange Cruz had with a student before the shooting began.
According to the report, Cruz was next seen leaving the stairwell and entering the first-floor hallway, where he immediately began shooting. Recordings from various cameras showed Cruz as he moved down the hallways and fired into classrooms and at those in the hall. Cameras also showed Cruz climbing and descending stairs. There was a several-minute gap between the time Cruz entered and left the third-floor teacher’s lounge, because there were no cameras in the lounge.
Overall, although camera coverage of the shooting was extensive, the report found two key surveillance-related problems. One was a lack of staff training in camera system operation. “Most school personnel were inadequately trained in how to operate the MSDHS camera system. This lack of familiarity and training adversely affected law enforcement response,” the report finds.
The other problem was a school district policy that does not allow live or real-time remote access to the campus video systems by law enforcement. “Law enforcement’s inability to independently live view the cameras hindered the law enforcement response and caused safety issues because they were unable to determine if Cruz was still in the building,” the report finds. “This delay also hindered victim rescue and medical response.”