Broward County

How teachers and students became first responders — and heroes — in school shooting

Mark Rodriguez holds a sign with the hashtag ‘Enough’ during a candlelight vigil on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, at Pine Trails Park for shooting victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Mark Rodriguez holds a sign with the hashtag ‘Enough’ during a candlelight vigil on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, at Pine Trails Park for shooting victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Scott Beigel had a choice as gunfire exploded around him: keep the deadbolt on his third-floor geography class locked, or open up and usher terrified students to safety.

With a gunman on a murderous rampage, there was little time to act and less to think. There were no police officers in the halls to protect them, no paramedics on campus to treat the wounded.

There was just Nikolas Cruz and his Smith & Wesson M&P 15, a classroom of scared teenagers, and Beigel, a teacher forced to choose between the training that told him to keep the door locked and kids begging for their lives.

He sacrificed himself for his kids, dying in the doorway of the room where he taught, using his last breath to yell that his classroom was empty in a final effort to save the students.

“He doesn’t deserve that,” Mia Sanchez, who hid under a desk and watched Beigel collapse, said Thursday.

No one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School deserved what happened Wednesday in a massacre that killed 17 and went down as the worst high school shooting in U.S. history. But in an era when school shootings are no longer rare or even unexpected, teachers and students have become reluctant heroes and first responders to America’s worst tragedies.

Scott Beigel Facebook

With long rifles as the weapon of choice for today’s mass murderers, dozens can die in the minutes it takes police to respond, forcing educators and pupils to make life-or-death decisions. And so schools prepare and train for moments like Wednesday afternoon in Parkland, knowing that staff and kids will be alone to confront a problem that America as a society has not.

“I don’t think we could have been more prepared than we were today,” teacher Melissa Falkowski said Wednesday night on the Rachel Maddow Show. “They knew what to do. We knew what to do. Even with that, we still have 17 casualties, 17 people who aren’t going to return to their families. And that’s so unacceptable.”

When the shooting began, teachers and students leapt into action. They shoved bookshelves and tables against locked doors, turned off lights and taped black paper over small window panes, and kept quiet. They huddled under desks, crowded into closets and put pressure against gashes to try to stop the bleeding. A football coach saved several students by throwing himself in the path of gunfire.

Students in a JROTC room hid behind air-rifle-training Kevlar sheets. Janitors and security guards herded students away from the shooting. And in stark contrast to the lack of political discourse about gun violence in state and federal government, some teens recorded interviews about gun control as they hid.

“If you looked around this closet and at all these people hiding together you should know that this shouldn’t be happening anymore,” a student said to senior David Hogg as they hid in a culinary classroom behind a David’s Cookie machine.

Hogg, his classmates, teachers and administrators were prepared in part because they’d been told a live active shooter training would be held during the year and that officers might shoot blanks.

So when the fire alarm rang about 2:20 p.m., scores of kids and adults calmly filed out as they’d done only hours earlier — only to scramble into classes when the words “Code Red” went out over two-way radios.

Math teacher Shanthi Viswanathan immediately made her students crouch low on the floor in the corner of the classroom. Then she slapped a piece of paper over the window of the classroom door so no one could peer in from the outside, the Sun Sentinel reported. Suspicious anyone outside might be the killer, she didn’t let a SWAT team into the room, telling them they’d have to break in.

Falkowski and 19 students from her newspaper class hurried back into her room, turned the lights off and crowded into a closet, two by two. Over in the school’s freshman Building 12 — where Cruz unleashed his attack, roving from room to room firing and reloading — some classes didn’t have much time. Beigel, whose room is on the third floor of that building, opened his door as a flood of teenagers ran back up the stairs to get away from Cruz.

Beigel was hit by the gunfire and collapsed in his doorway, leaving those inside unable to close themselves in as smoke wafted through the opening. Sanchez, from her precarious spot under a desk, says that, as he died, Beigel yelled to the gunman that his room was empty, and believes that may have saved her life.

Nearby, social studies teacher Ernest Rospierski scrambled to get students back into their classrooms and was locked out of his own. He saw Cruz approach in a gas mask and helmet, and felt a bullet graze his cheek as he tried to keep a group of stranded students he’d shoved into an alcove out of the line of fire. Cruz ran out of ammo and had to reload, and Rospierski rushed his students down a stairwell and then ducked into a bathroom.

At one point, Rospierski stopped and checked the pulse of a girl lying motionless, but couldn’t find any sign of life.

Downstairs, a burly, 37-year-old security guard and football coach named Aaron Feis was seen running toward the sound of gunfire. Feis was fatally shot during the attack when he threw himself in front of a small group of students running from Cruz’s assault. Athletic Director Chris Hixon also was killed.

Aaron Feis Handout

Rev. John Jones of First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale referred to the two men during a vigil as “martyrs who saved and unselfishly gave themselves to protect their students, their friends.” Speaking at a news conference, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie praised his teachers as if they were police: “They put their lives on the line every single day.”

Stoneman Douglas, a massive high school in Parkland with a listed enrollment of 3,200, has an armed officer assigned to the school. But Broward Sheriff Scott Israel says that officer never encountered Cruz, who shed his weapons and slipped off campus in a JROTC polo shirt without any resistance until being collared about a mile away. Cruz’s “gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting,” were reported in January to the FBI, the agency acknowledged Friday.

Investigators say Wednesday’s shooting, in which 17 were killed and 15 more were wounded, lasted from three to six minutes. As SWAT teams sped to campus, classes relied on their training to respond and survive.

Anna Fusco, Broward teachers’ union president, said schools are “fortunate” to have active shooter training, which she described as rigorous. “It’s not just told to us. … We practice it. We understand it. We collaborate with our administration about it. They bring in the security teams to have conversations with every school.”

To the south, just as Cruz was terrorizing his former high school, Country Isles Elementary teachers in suburban Broward County who’d been listening to recorded 911 calls from the Newtown massacre in Connecticut learned that a high school was under attack. A teacher interrupted a sheriff’s deputy mid-presentation to share the news.

Broward teachers “know that we have policies and we have drills but when everyday real action happens, they try to kick in what they’ve learned as best as they can,” Fusco added. “Your instincts kick in to protect your kids and get them to safety.”

Shay Makinde, 16, says he watched Cruz shoot Beigel after he opened his door to let the students into his class.

“He shielded them. He saw the shooter coming,” Makinde said. “He’s a superhero today, yesterday, forever. He should be remembered.”

School gunman Nikolas Cruz makes a video appearance in Broward County court before Judge Kim Theresa Mollica on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Susan Stocker TNS

Makinde says he escaped by racing down a hallway. He says he shoved two students into a classroom as bullets flew. But his best efforts couldn’t save his friend Joaquin “Guac” Oliver.

“They got him right through the head before I could get him,” said Makinde, who feels as though he could have done more to help Oliver escape. “I honestly blame myself. Everybody’s telling me not to, but if it wasn’t for me, he’d still be here with us.”

Stoneman Douglas closed for the remainder of the week in order to allow investigators to do their jobs and give students and staff the time to grieve. Like police officers after a shooting, they’re provided with counseling. Like soldiers, they’re hailed as heroes.

And like first responders, they’re left to grapple with the stress and fallout. Except, at some point, they’ll be asked to return to school, pick up their books and tablets, and get back to learning. Runcie, the superintendent, said he doesn’t plan on holding classes in the building where the shooting happened ever again. Florida legislators said Thursday they will provide the resources to help the school district tear down the building. But most likely, those same kids will have to pass state assessments and those same teachers will receive evaluations on their performances.

And they’ll carry the burden of an entire country, until the next shooting shifts the scene to another school.

Related stories from Miami Herald