As the fire alarm blared for the second time on Wednesday, it seemed like yet another drill for how to deal with a school emergency until a term Alex Azar knew fed over the speakers: code black. “Bomb threat – evacuate.”
“We hear boom-boom, boom-boom-boom-boom,” says the sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after escaping America’s latest school shooting on Wednesday, the worst since 2012’s Sandy Hook massacre. “We were like, maybe that is firecrackers, maybe it’s just a prank. But then they said ‘code black’ ... and we start funneling out along the fence.”
Dogged preparations for such a worst-case scenario may have saved lives. But they were not enough to slow down an expelled student who returned on Valentine’s Day, killing 17 students and staff and wounding at least 14 others.
The 19-year-old, who had left clues of violent plans on social media, committed the deadliest mass shooting ever at a US high school, and the third incident in the past five months to enter the Top 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern US history.
“It cannot be denied that something dangerous and unhealthy is happening in our country,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday. “We’ve got to confront the problem. There’s no doubt about it.”
With Congress largely prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the interplay between guns and public health, states and communities have been left to respond, largely by stepping up training, security, and awareness. Forty percent of US schools are now under guard, including Douglas High in Parkland.
But this newest attack has jarred many Americans into asking more intently whether a national response is needed to investigate random, sudden violence afflicting the nation.
“This is now a real threat, a real national emergency,” says Alan Lizotte, a distinguished professor at the School of Criminal Justice at SUNY’s University at Albany. “And so we’re now at a point where it has to sweep the country and destroy lives everywhere until at some point someone takes it seriously.”
The shooting comes at a time of both heightened awareness and vulnerability in public areas, including schools. Since the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado, more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 schools have experienced campus shootings, according to a Washington Post analysis.
When police breached one room full of injured students on Wednesday, they asked one student why he was wearing a flak jacket. Worried about a school shooting, his dad had given it to the teen to keep in his locker. The country also was given indelible insights into what school violence looks like, as students posted videos of themselves hunkering under desks, whimpering. “I am in a school shooting,” one student, hidden, wrote on social media. “If I don’t make it,” a freshman texted her parents, “I love you and I appreciate everything you did for me.”
Frustration by local school officials couldn’t be contained in the aftermath. “We did everything that we were supposed to do,” Melissa Falkowski, a teacher at the school, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Broward County has prepared us for this situation and still to have so many casualties, at least for me, it’s very emotional.”
This is where people move to protect their children
None of this is supposed to happen in a place like Parkland, a cluster of gated neighborhoods surrounded by manicured hedges, perfect green lawns, and majestic palm trees.
This is where people move to protect their children from school violence.
The local high school is among the best and safest in south Florida’s Broward County. But none of that mattered Wednesday afternoon to any of the parents and other family members waiting for the authorities to allow them to finally see their children.
As she stood with other relatives, Gina Fontana’s eyes flashed with anger at the death toll – and her own worries for her niece, who had not yet checked in.
“This country has to realize that this gun violence is out of control,” says Ms. Fontana. “And we have to stop playing politics and wake up and realize that our children’s lives are at stake.”
But others at the periphery say that the wave of violence has only made them more conscious that mass gun violence can intrude senselessly into anybody’s life.
Indeed, the shooting didn’t surprise Broward County dad Anthony Dubois. “Truth be told, nobody is safe,” he says. “You can’t think that this can’t happen to you.... You can only hope for the best, you know?”
But at least in Florida, the site of the 2016 Pulse massacre in Orlando, “hope for the best” may no longer be good enough.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced a shift in state priorities a day after the massacre.
“Next week in Tallahassee we are going to sit down with the legislature and have a real conversation about: How do we make sure that when a parent is ready to send a child to school that the parent knows that the child is going to be safe?” he said.
To many Americans, a more distinct sense of common responsibility and communal burden may ultimately be more effective than any federal response.
“A man who is determined to kill ... will find guns,” writes David French in the conservative National Review. “But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do.... We have responsibilities, not just to mourn and comfort the families of the lost, but to think carefully about our own communities and the circle of people in our lives — and to take action to guard our own children and our own schools.”
President Trump reacted to the shootings by urging Americans to report “again and again” on people who appear to be threats to their communities. Teachers and the FBI had been warned about the shooter, who had been expelled, reportedly after bringing bullets to school in his backpack. “Your suffering is our burden,” Mr. Trump said.
‘This is a true stop-gap measure’
Yet states are clearly struggling with how to safeguard public areas and schools.
In late January, a student opened fire in a western Kentucky high school and killed two classmates. Later that day, state Sen. Steve West filed a bill in the state legislature that would put armed “marshals” in public schools.
“My bill will not save the world,” acknowledged Mr. West, a Republican, in a recent Monitor interview. “This is a true stop-gap measure. [We’re] just trying our best to fill in a hole and fill that hole in school safety in Kentucky.
“I don’t want to be filing this bill. I wish we didn’t have to address this situation,” he says, but “we’re at a line where we need to do something to address the problem.”
The problem for many states is lack of understanding, that while school shootings undoubtedly happen too often, they “don’t happen frequently enough that it’s very easy to predict what’s going to cause them,” and thus whether armed security personnel would have a meaningful impact in preventing them, says Emily Owens, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine, who has researched school police programs.
“Social scientists are in an uncomfortable position [in] that this is a terrible event that doesn’t happen frequently enough to lend itself to analytical tools,” she adds, a position made more difficult by the federal government’s restricting of research into gun violence.
Gordon Crews, who spoke to dozens of school shooters for his book “School Killers Speak,” says it is certain that such shootings are “increasing like crazy.”
“Schools are either the biggest symbol of [shooters’] first failures or symbolic: ‘What is more American and innocent than little child on playground in elementary school? That is what I am going to attack,’ ” adds the Tiffin University professor.
Most immediately, Broward County parents are struggling with a sense that even the best preparation, awareness, and follow-up can’t thwart a sudden attack. Some cultural observers have likened the phenomenon to a “slow-motion riot” – each incident fueling the next.
“When you look at these shootings from Dylan Klebold and his associate [in 1999] to the young man who committed the Sandy Hook massacre [in 2012] and now down to where we are with this young man, there’s a pattern here,” says John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.
That pattern is that “the response that these young men choose is heavily influenced by our culture. That means we have to focus on creating a culture of abundance and not one of scarcity, where we are trying to keep people away, trying to be exclusive and bully and harass people. It is in that kind of culture where people who do have these mental health challenges may very well find a way, using firearms, to feel that they have some kind of agency in this world.”
This story was reported by staff writers Warren Richey in Parkland, Fla., and Henry Gass in Winchester, Ky. It was reported and written by Patrik Jonsson in Savannah, Ga.