A judge has rejected a deputy’s claim that he had no duty to confront the gunman during the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Refusing to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the parent of a victim, Broward Circuit Judge Patti Englander Henning found after a hearing Wednesday that ex-deputy Scot Peterson did have a duty to protect those inside the school where 17 people died and 17 were wounded on Feb. 14. Video and other evidence shows Peterson, the only armed officer at the school, remained outside while shots rang out.
The negligence lawsuit was filed by Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed. He said it made no sense for Peterson’s attorneys to argue that a sworn law enforcement officer with a badge and a gun had no requirement to go inside.
“Then what is he doing there?” Pollack said after the ruling. “He had a duty. I’m not going to let this go. My daughter, her death is not going to be in vain.”
Peterson attorney Michael Piper said he understands that people might be offended or outraged at his client’s defense, but he argued that as a matter of law, the deputy had no duty to confront the shooter. Peterson did not attend the hearing.
“There is no legal duty that can be found,” Piper said. “At its very worst, Scot Peterson is accused of being a coward. That does not equate to bad faith.”
Meanwhile, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which is investigating the shooting, heavily criticized the Broward school district Wednesday for not having a universal policy for calling a “Code Red” – the term for immediately locking down classrooms because an active shooter is on campus – and little training for staff and students.
Commission members meeting in Tallahassee said that contributed to no one calling a Code Red until more than three minutes after the first shots were fired. By that time, 15 people were fatally shot inside the three-story freshman building and the last two victims were in the shooter’s sights. Nikolas Cruz, 20, a former student with mental health issues, has been charged with the shooting.
“I am extremely dismayed that the people around this table and behind the scenes are taking this much more seriously than Broward County,” said commissioner Melissa Larkin-Skinner, the Florida chief executive officer for a mental health treatment group. “It makes me physically ill. … I am sitting here and getting more and more pissed off by the minute.”
Broward school officials did not return a call and email Wednesday seeking comment.
The commission also hammered then-security monitor Andrew Medina, who told investigators he saw Cruz entering the campus carrying a rifle bag and recognized him as the same student whom staff had previously identified as a potential school shooter. But instead of confronting Cruz or calling a Code Red, Medina radioed a security monitor inside the freshman building, investigators have said. He then drove his cart to get Peterson at the school’s administration offices. Medina told investigators shortly after the shooting that he was wary of calling a “Code Red” without more certainty about what was going on.
Commissioner and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd called Medina’s failure to stop Cruz “reprehensible,” but also criticized the district for laying the brunt of school security on low-paid employees who have little training.
Medina was fired in June after it was revealed he had sexually harassed two female students last year, including Pollack’s daughter.
The 15-member commission, which met Wednesday and Thursday, will present a report to Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature by Jan. 1.
The commission includes law enforcement, education and mental health professionals, a legislator and the fathers of two slain students.
The pane recommended Wednesday that teachers who volunteer and undergo extensive background checks and training be allowed to carry concealed guns on campus to stop future shootings.
In a 13-1 to vote, the panel recommend the Legislature allow the arming of teachers, saying it’s not enough to have one or two police officers or armed guards on campus. Florida law adopted after the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead allows districts to arm non-teaching staff members such as principals, librarians and custodians – 13 of the 67 districts do, mostly in rural parts of the state.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission’s chairman, pushed the measure at the Tallahassee meeting. He said most deaths in school shootings happen within the first few minutes, before officers on and off campus can respond. He said suspect Nikolas Cruz stopped to reload his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle five times, all of which would have been opportunities for an armed teacher to shoot him.
“We have to give people a fighting chance, we have to give them an opportunity to protect themselves,” Gualtieri said. He said there aren’t enough officers or money to hire one for every school, but even then officers need backup. “One good guy with a gun on campus is not enough.”
The state teachers union and PTA have previously expressed opposition, saying teachers are hired to educate, not be police officers.
Commissioner Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex died in the massacre, cast the lone vote against the motion. He said the state should focus on hiring more police officers for campuses and allowing non-teaching staff to carry guns.
“We do need more good guys with a gun on campus – nobody understands that and wishes we had more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas than myself,” Schachter said. But arming teachers “creates a host of problems.” The father and wife of other victims, who are not on the commission, also spoke against arming teachers.
Some of the other recommendations tentatively approved Wednesday include requiring that all Florida public schools have single points of entry, that open gates be staffed, that all classroom doors remain locked and that every district have active shooter policies and staff training.
The panel also recommended that teachers should have intercoms in their classrooms and that districts allow law enforcement agencies have access to school video feeds.
It rejected a recommendation that schools be allowed to use facial recognition systems to grant campus access, saying many parents would object.
Cruz 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.
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