Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Principal Admonished for Being Uninformed on Student Threats

Public safety commission’s stinging rebuke of the principal was part of a broad look at policy and training failures at the school and at the district level, leading to the murders of 14 children and three staff members. A former student, Nikolas Cruz, is charged with the killings and faces the death penalty.

by Megan O'Matz and David Fleshler, Sun Sentinel / December 14, 2018
Mourners bring flowers as they pay tribute at a memorial for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018 during an open house as parents and students returned to the school for the first time since 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at the school in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018. TNS

(TNS) - Even if someone threatened to shoot up his school, the popular principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High did not expect anyone to tell him.

“Very rarely does that come up,” Ty Thompson told the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, as it investigated the massacre at his school Feb. 14. “It’s not part of the protocol to bring it to me.”

Thompson could only guess at the number of official “threat assessments” the school conducted on students each year and “really had no idea of the process,” according to a sweeping draft report the commission issued Wednesday.

The 20-member panel called for the district to investigate whether Thompson violated district policy by not ensuring that he knew about potential threats on campus.

The commission’s stinging rebuke of Thompson was part of a broad look at policy and training failures at the school and at the district level, leading to the murders of 14 children and three staff members. A former student, Nikolas Cruz, is charged with the killings and faces the death penalty.

The commission, which has been gathering evidence and hearing testimony for eight months, found that Stoneman Douglas administrators lacked know-how in conducting threat assessments; did not have an active assailant response policy and no written policy on how to call for a lockdown of the school; and provided no formal training of campus monitors on their specific roles. The staff had no training on how to respond to an active shooter except a PowerPoint presentation by a detective a month before the shooting.

The report blamed the district for failing to adequately train school staff about how to broadcast a “Code Red,” or lockdown of a school, and said that “left students and staff vulnerable to being shot.”

“Some were shot because they were not notified to lockdown. This was most evident on the third floor.”

In addition, the school had no public address system speakers in the hallways, which prevented administrators from effectively telling students and staff to seek safety. Teachers did not have coverings on hand to block the classroom door windows, enabling Cruz to see in to target his victims. And the school also had not marked or cleared “hard corners,” places students could hide away from view.

The district’s failure to mandate such safe areas contributed to students being shot, the report states.

April Schentrup, a former Broward elementary school principal and mother of one of the slain children, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that schools were required each year to have an emergency lockdown or evacuation drill, though not necessarily tied to an active shooter. “I don’t know how that directive was ignored,” she said of Stoneman Douglas. “It’s a school leadership failure.”

The school district issued a statement Wednesday, saying the district will use the commission’s report to make schools safer.

“We are studying the observations to deepen our understanding of what happened, who was responsible and what might have been done differently. We are considering the best, most expedient ways to implement recommendations throughout all areas: security policies and procedures, training, communication systems, physical hardening and threat assessments.”

The statement from the press office noted that the district is in the process of adopting policies dealing with safer spaces in classrooms and emergency codes and has dramatically increased Code Red training.

An assistant to Thompson said he was not available for an interview. “He really has no comment,” she said.

Thompson is still the principal of Stoneman Douglas, where he is well liked and known for his enthusiastic school spirit. In November, however, the district transferred three assistant principals and assigned them elsewhere while under investigation. The district declined to say what, if anything, they are suspected of doing wrong.

One of those transferred was Jeff Morford, who the commission found mishandled a threat assessment of Cruz in September 2016. The report states that Morford was “not competent” in the task and had never handled such evaluation before in his 31 years as an educator.

“Jeff is old school. He only did operations. He never did any discipline at where he was at his previous location and so Jeff said: ‘I don’t even know where to find a threat assessment,’” Assistant Principal Denise Reed testified. She, too, was transferred, along with Assistant Principal Winfred Porter, Jr.

During the threat assessment, Reed said she initially interviewed Cruz, who wanted to buy a gun and had written “kill” on a notebook. Later, Morford “unilaterally assumed” a higher level review but could not explain how or why. Cruz was barred from bringing a backpack to school and a search of his home by police found no firearms at the time.

The commission called on the district to investigate Morford’s handling of the threat review and found his inability to answer detailed questions was “not credible.”

Threat assessments “are one of the most important opportunities to provide a safer school environment and head-off concerning behavior before it manifests into actual harm,” the commission reported.

The Broward school district averages two threat assessments a day, and the process is not automated: The forms are all on paper and, once completed, the packet remains at the school in the student’s record.

The commission recommended that the district revamp the process to be proactive, not reactive — and to ensure that the findings are reviewed at least by the school’s principal “if not higher authority.”

The commission faulted Thompson for being “disengaged from the threat assessment process” and for failing to create reporting procedures to ensure he knew about threats on campus.

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