SUNRISE, Fla.—The state commission investigating the Florida high school massacre began discussions on Nov. 16, on what recommendations it will make regarding student safety, mental health and steps to prevent future school shootings.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Commission didn’t pass any specific recommendations Friday at its latest gathering to consider the Feb. 14 attack that killed 14 students and three staff members at the school in Parkland. But it decided it will focus its initial batch of recommendations on less controversial areas such as school hardening before addressing difficult issues like mental health.
The 14-member panel must file its initial report to outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, his successor, and the Legislature by Jan. 1.
State Sen. Lauren Book, a member of the commission, said she expects all legislators will read the report and take it seriously, given the magnitude of the tragedy.
“We all within the Legislature come from different backgrounds and different knowledge bases,” Book said. “Giving some information is good, getting too much into the weeds is dangerous.”
Stoneman Douglas social studies teacher Ernie Rospierski, who herded students down a stairwell and used his body to barricade the door behind them after being grazed by two bullets, told commissioners to be “very careful” about putting more safety requirements on teachers because they are already overworked. But, he said, the panel needs to begin writing “the playbook” for preventing future tragedies.
“Until that is finished, we are going to see this again and again,” Rospierski said.
The commissioners decided not to go through their items publicly Friday. They said they would review possible recommendations accumulated by their staff individually, submit suggestions and concerns and then debate them publicly at their meeting next month.
Meanwhile, the attorney for the sheriff’s deputy who was on the campus during the massacre started a charity website to raise money for the man’s legal defense. Joseph DiRuzzo III started a GoFundMe page for now-retired Broward County sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson in hopes of raising $150,000 “to defend him against any spurious claims of criminal liability.” As of Friday afternoon, $40 had been raised before the drive appeared to be shut down.
DiRuzzo noted the GoFundMe page in a lawsuit filed this week to block Scott Peterson from being forced to testify before the commission. Many commissioners have called Peterson “a coward” for not charging into the building with his handgun and confronting the shooter, who was armed with a semi-automatic rifle.
Security video shows Peterson arrived outside the three-story building where the killings happened shortly after the shooting began, about the same time the gunman finished slaying 11 people on the first floor. Peterson drew his handgun, but retreated to cover next to the neighboring building. The video shows Peterson never left that spot for 50 minutes, even after other deputies and police officers arrived on campus and went inside.
Panel members have said they believe Peterson’s inaction allowed suspect Nikolas Cruz to climb to the third floor, where five students and one teacher were killed. They believe if Peterson, 55, had confronted Cruz and engaged him in a shootout he could have killed him or given others more time to reach safety.
DiRuzzo said in his lawsuit that as the first deputy on scene, Peterson was the incident commander charged with coordinating law enforcement’s response until relieved by a superior. DiRuzzo said Peterson was never relieved and fulfilled that duty by directing officers into the building and ordering the closing of the school and surrounding streets.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the panel’s chairman, said Friday that DiRuzzo’s lawsuit is “a work of fiction.”
“Peterson did not do his job. Peterson is a failure, and he should be embarrassed and held accountable for what he did not do,” Gualtieri said.
Also Friday, the commission learned that eight of the state’s 67 countywide school districts haven’t filed safety assessments mandated after the massacre.
State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, a commission member, said Friday there’s little she can do to districts that don’t file the assessments, which were due Oct. 31. She said one county’s report was delayed because of Hurricane Michael and others are completed but awaiting approval of their district school boards.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a commission member, said the new state law should require the suspension of a district’s superintendent and board chair if the deadline is broken.
The panel has been meeting periodically since April and includes law enforcement, education and mental health officials, a legislator, and the fathers of two dead students.
Cruz, a 20-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student, is charged with the slayings. He has pleaded not guilty, but his attorneys have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
By Terry Spencer