Stopping a School Shooting

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Written By Pinang Driod

Scot Peterson served for many years as a school resource officer in Broward County, Florida. His job was largely uneventful—he might catch a kid vaping or break up a fight—until just after Valentine’s Day 2018. That day, a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 people. Shortly after, a video circulated showing Peterson taking cover beside a wall while the gunman was inside shooting. From then on, Peterson became known in his town, and in international media, as the “Coward of Broward.” (The accidental rhyme probably helped spread the infamy.)

Peterson was later charged with seven counts of felony child neglect, three misdemeanor counts of culpable negligence, and one count of perjury. He was tried in the same courthouse where they tried the gunman, Nicholas Cruz. A jury found Peterson not guilty. However, the verdict did not resolve the major cultural questions. Should we expect a lone, sometimes poorly trained police officer with a pistol to face down a shooter with an assault rifle? And if the officer fails to do that, are we justified in labeling him a coward?

In this episode of Radio Atlantic, we talk with Jamie Thompson, who wrote The Atlantic’s March cover story, about Peterson. A longtime police reporter, Thompson learned that some highly trained SWAT officers were far less judgmental of Peterson than members of his community were. She looked into what we are leaving out when we reduce mass shootings to stories of courage or cowardice.

Listen to the conversation here:

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The following is a transcript of the episode:

News Archival: We have breaking news, and bear with us because we don’t have much information at this time, but there are reports of a school shooting. In Parkland, Florida, that’s in Broward County, these are live pictures right now.

Hanna Rosin: Six years ago, a gunman opened fire at a Parkland, Florida, high school.

News Archival: It looks like multiple injuries here. This is a horrible sight for these poor kids

Rosin: Seventeen people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Seventeen more were injured. It is still the deadliest mass shooting at a high school in U.S. history.

News Archival: The latest we have from the Broward Sheriff’s Office is that the school is on lockdown. They’ve told students and others to barricade themselves in place, and they’re now searching for a gunman.

Rosin: This is Radio Atlantic. I’m Hanna Rosin. And we are revisiting that awful moment not because of the actions of that day, but because of the inaction.

Jamie Thompson: I started following the story at the same time everyone else did.

Rosin: This is reporter Jamie Thompson, who’s been covering police for over a decade. Jamie kept tracking the story for years, largely because of the unlikely person who wound up at the center of it.

News Archival: Authorities releasing surveillance video that captures the school resource officer Scot Peterson standing outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during the massacre.

Thompson: There was a very clear image off a surveillance-camera footage where he is standing beside a wall, and on all the TV shows, they would sort of circle him in bright red—just saying, this is the coward who stood by while children were slaughtered.

Rosin: He became known as the Coward of Broward. His real name is Scot Peterson. And he had a reputation as a pleasant older school resource officer—until that footage started circulating.

News Archival: Surveillance tape shows the school resource officer never entered the building as bullets flew.

News Archival: The video shows Peterson talking into a radio handset on his shoulder, then appearing to move on a golf cart, and finally taking up a position outside the building.

Thompson: You know, as soon as they released the surveillance video of him taking cover beside the wall, he was sort of universally condemned.

News Archival: He was a coward, and he froze outside the building instead of going in and engaging the threat.

Rosin: Jamie has written about the dilemmas that cops face in all kinds of situations, in standoffs, traffic stops, drug busts.

But this scrutiny that Scot Peterson was facing presented a totally new set of questions, which she explored for the March cover story of The Atlantic.

Why would an armed officer stand by while students were being shot? What is an officer’s responsibility to face an armed shooter? And if he fails to do that, are we justified in labeling him “the coward”?

Rosin: When the Parkland shooting happened, Jamie was working on another police story, and she decided to ask some of her sources what they thought of Peterson.

Thompson: So I was reporting on a story in Dallas in which I was interviewing a lot of SWAT officers back when this happened, in 2018. And I was really surprised by the SWAT officers’ reaction to Scot Peterson’s response to the shooting. You would expect that SWAT officers, who are some of the best trained, would have been the most judgmental toward Peterson’s failure to enter the building,

The SWAT officers basically were saying that, you know, the general public essentially has no realistic grasp of what it takes to actually run up against an armed gunman.

And I remember one of them telling me: Look, we don’t pay that deputy enough to go run into a school and face an AR-15 and die because the country has sort of failed to fix its active shooter problem.

One SWAT officer I remember telling me that he wants to run away every single time someone shoots at him. And it’s only through a lot of training and also the peer pressure of having other SWAT officers around that makes him able to keep pressing forward.

In the face of just fear, our bodies do very unpredictable things when we begin to become afraid, and so I think their reaction to the shooting was so different than the general public’s reaction, that, um, I just sort of kept following the story, and when the trial came around, I found myself really curious to just see how that would unfold.

Rosin: The Parkland shooting produced two criminal trials. The first was against the shooter, former student Nikolas Cruz. In 2022, Cruz was sentenced to 34 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. One for every person he killed or injured.

The second trial was against Scot Peterson. Now, on one level, it was strange that Cruz and Peterson wound up in the same court building. But the way events unfolded in Parkland, it felt almost inevitable.

Thompson: So the shooting happened on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

About a week later, the then Broward sheriff, Scott Israel, announced during a press conference that Peterson had failed to go into the building and help the kids while the shooting was unfolding.

Archival: [Reporter] What was Scot Peterson—was he there when the shooter was still inside the building? [Israel] Yes, he was. [Reporter] So what should he have done? [Israel] Went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer.

Thompson: He says that he was called to the sheriff’s office to discuss the shooting. And he was basically pressured into retiring.

Archival: [Israel] I decided this morning to suspend Scot Peterson without pay pending an internal investigation. As is his right, Scot Peterson chose to resign. The investigation will continue.

Thompson: He then went back to his house for a couple months and was living, basically, as a shut-in. He couldn’t leave. There were reporters; TV trucks were parked out front.

So he and his partner, Lydia, moved to a secluded cabin up in North Carolina in the mountains. And he essentially was trying to move on. Um, he was contesting some parts of his departure from the sheriff’s office. So he went back for a hearing about a year after the shooting.

And then says, to his surprise, he was unexpectedly arrested.

News Archival: The former sheriff’s deputy, who stayed outside the school rather than confront the gunman, is facing serious criminal charges tonight over his decisions that fateful day.

Thompson: So he was taken to jail, with seven felony counts of child neglect. He was put in a suicide smock, um, and he says he spent two nights in jail, just sort of sleepless nights, wondering what was going to happen next.

News Archival: [Host] In a sense, the charge is that he was a coward.

News Archival: [Guest] Well, there is no criminal charge for being a coward, and I know he’s being labeled the Coward of Broward, but that’s not criminal. What is criminal, possibly, is child neglect, is culpable negligence and perjury.

Thompson: Peterson’s trial was believed to be the first time a law-enforcement officer in the country faced criminal penalties for failing to move quickly toward an active shooter.

Rosin: All the charges combined added up to a maximum sentence of 96 and a half years. Now, six other deputies who heard gunfire also didn’t run into the building, but none of them were charged.

Thompson: We tend to view police officers as having the mission to protect and serve.

But courts have consistently ruled that police officers have no constitutional duty to keep us safe.

So Peterson’s inaction that day—there isn’t a law that easily matches up with what he did or did not do. So prosecutors used this, what was described as a novel legal strategy, to label him as a caregiver. So this would be like a nanny.

Rosin: That is one of the many ironies of this situation. The officer who was singled out as a coward for failing to run towards an active shooter is the same one who could most easily be compared to a nanny.

A school resource officer is not investigating armed robberies. He looks into offenses like vaping, or skipping school, or maybe fights in the lunchroom.

Thompson: And if you met him, I mean, he comes across like your grandpa. You know, he’s funny. He’s friendly. He’s nice. He got along well with the students and staff.

Rosin: But in the courtroom, as prosecutors analyzed that video of him standing beside the wall, he was on trial as the coward who’d failed those students.

Archival: It was from the point that Aaron Feis was shot that the defendant knew people were dying. It was from that point forward that he was the only hope for those victims, because he was the only hope to slow that shooter down.

Thompson: There were moments during the trial where the prosecutor assembled all the pieces and told the most horrible story of cowardice you can imagine: Just, you know, as kids are dying, this deputy is just failing to save them. It was a story where he was the clear villain, and just a god-awful story.

And I was watching Peterson at the defense table, and he looked just almost in physical pain over it. It seemed to me there was more going on there than just a criminal trial. It was him on trial as a human being.

Rosin: So Peterson was living with this very public label of shame, the Coward of Broward, for a long time. And I asked Jamie: Did it make sense to her that he was labeled a coward?

Thompson: I think it made sense to me. I mean, I think that when you have something as emotionally devastating as children in a school getting killed and staff members getting killed, you want to hold somebody responsible.

You want someone to blame. And the idea that a sheriff’s deputy was standing by with a gun and didn’t do anything to try to stop the killing is outrageous in a lot of people’s minds.

But he feels like he’s been scapegoated. He feels like he’s been blamed as a convenient villain when there were really lots of villains and lots of failed systems at work.

Rosin: So it makes sense as a morality play. It makes sense that grieving parents would feel outrage that the person charged with protecting their children didn’t. And maybe it makes sense that the person most familiar with the school could have done more.

But zoom out, and there’s another question: How did we all land in a situation where the thin line between children having a normal day and mass carnage was a single grandpa type who had no experience and very little training facing down someone with an assault rifle? That’s after the break.

[Music]

Rosin: Journalist Jamie Thompson followed the trial. She talked to Peterson and also to lots of other people who face down active shooters. She was trying to figure out what was incomplete about this story being told about Peterson.

And she started with: When did this idea of a lone-hero cop facing down a shooter become normal operating procedure?

Thompson: So back in 1999, if you recall, was the Columbine shooting, and cops who responded to that scene did essentially what they’ve been long trained to do, which is to set up a perimeter around the scene and wait for SWAT. That approach has long been used primarily because SWAT officers have a whole lot more training than your average patrol deputy.

They tend to be better armed. They tend to deal with more active-gunman calls. They tend to have a better template for how to respond to that sort of situation. There’s a couple—one, in particular, very heartbreaking death in Columbine. There was a teacher by the name of Dave Sanders who really heroically saved just dozens of students, trying to get them out of the path of the gunmen.

He ended up getting shot, and he was in a science lab—when you had two Eagle Scouts, who were students, were ripping up shirts, trying to help stop the bleeding. But he ended up bleeding out on the floor in the science lab because no one got to him quickly enough to help him medically. And so after Columbine, police forces really started to rethink their approach, and basically came to the conclusion that they didn’t have time to wait for SWAT.

So that got us to the approach that is pretty much considered the professional standard at this point, which is called solo-officer response. And that dictates that any cop who shows up on scene, even if alone, even if they only have a pistol, you know, regardless of what equipment they have or what training they’ve been afforded, they are expected to run, and find the gunman and try to stop the killing.

A lot of these active-shooter events are over before police even show up, so any delay can really significantly impact survival rates.

Rosin: So pre-Columbine, the approach was: Secure the perimeter and wait for SWAT.

Now it’s: Go in immediately. Even if it’s just you and a handgun against an automatic weapon. That’s the ideal, and it makes for a satisfying hero scene in a movie.

But in the real world, as Jamie found out, people who are poorly trained or not trained at all, they are much more likely to succumb to the body’s primal fight-or-flight response.

Thompson: A sort of common saying in law enforcement is that officers do not rise to a moment; they fall to the level of their training. So this idea that we have that somebody is going to be presented with an incredibly difficult situation and just emerge to handle it beautifully doesn’t really track with reality.

To be able to handle an active-shooter call, you’ve really got to have mastered several very difficult skills. One, you have to be able to shoot really well, while someone is moving and shooting at you, presumably. Also, there’s a whole biological cascade that’s happening in your body that’s very difficult to manage if you’re not that familiar with how to deal with stress. So there’s a lot of physical, technical, mechanical things that cops could be doing to improve their performance, but instead we’ve spent a lot of time talking about shame instead of how to provide cops with better training.

Rosin: You talked to a lot of people who have faced active shooters, looked into training programs. What were situations where people were well prepared?

Thompson: So I think that the situations where responders were best prepared tend to fall in a couple of categories. One is: SWAT officers, or some variety of SWAT officer, shows up at the scene and they happen to have had a lot of training in gunfighting and how to manage stress. They’ve handled a lot of dangerous calls. They’ve got experience.

Rosin: Did you talk to anyone who does fit our image of what a hero would look like?

Thompson: I did. So I talked to a gentleman named Stephen Willeford, who is a plumber. And he was at his home resting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a gunman showed up and started shooting his neighbors in a church nearby.

And Willeford, you know, much like a movie action hero, jumped out of bed, ran out of his house barefoot, grabbed his gun and some ammo, and ran directly toward the sound of gunfire. He told me that he shouted just the first thing that came into his mind, which happened to be “Hey.” So he shouts “Hey,” the gunman comes out and starts shooting at Willeford, who’s taking cover beside his neighbor’s pickup truck, and Willeford does something that’s pretty remarkable.

We will often hear in police shootings, people are often critical of how many bullets cops fire in shootings. But he fired only six shots, each one of them carefully aimed, and ended up chasing the shooter away from the church.

And in the aftermath, a lot of cops really marveled at his performance. And when I talked to Stephen Willeford, what he told me is that he’s been shooting since he was 5 years old.

He’s very practiced with firearms. He would tell me about these drills that he and his church shooting-pistol team would do. They called themselves the Sinners. And they—

Rosin: The Sinners, did you say?

Thompson: They called themselves the Sinners.

Rosin: That’s pretty good. Yeah.

Thompson: And they would do these very elaborate drills, where I remember, one of them, him saying that he would, you know—a whistle would blow and then he would rush to the table, pick up a baby doll, change the baby doll’s diaper, put the baby on his shoulder, and keep shooting all the while. And, um, other times he would practice with a welding hood, where he could just see through a small eyehole. So he had—by the time that he went up against an active shooter at his neighborhood church, he knew exactly what to do.

He’d practiced what to do. He’s an excellent shot. He’s very familiar with firearms. He knows how to control his breathing. He knows how to hit a moving target. He knows how to not get shot himself. And that level of training is just not common on our police forces.

Rosin: That is really revealing. So essentially, if you go over everything that needs to be in place in order for this to go the way our imaginations want it to go, which is what we see in the movies, it’s: He probably has decades of shooting experience, so he remains calm.

Thompson: And I would note there have been other officers who have confronted active shooters who maybe did not have that level of training. So I don’t think that every person has to be an ace like Stephen Willeford.

But one of the things that I learned while researching this story is that scientists have really come to believe that some of us are just biologically better equipped to handle fear and stress, and tend to perform better when those moments present themselves.

Rosin: Okay, so Stephen Willeford is maybe an ideal solo response to a shooter. Like, maybe he has a really good fear and stress response. He definitely has a lot of applicable training. What does the average American cop have to train them for these situations?

Thompson: Not a lot. In a lot of states, cops get an average of 20 hours or less training a year. And agencies now are trying to cram a lot of things into those hours. We have crisis intervention, de-escalation training, racial-bias training. So there’s limited time, limited money, and a lot of things to cover. So I think that most policing experts will tell you that police officers are really not being afforded enough training, if the public would like them to turn into Rambo on the day that an active shooter shows up at their school.

Rosin: Yeah, so essentially you came away from your research thinking: The people going into these situations are not well trained to respond to these situations.

Thompson: I think most policing experts will tell you that training does not play a big enough role in the daily, weekly, monthly lives of police officers, that, you know, our demands for police are ever higher. We have seen the myriad ways that they fail on a daily basis. And the only way to really reform and change policing is through additional training, which is expensive and time-consuming.

And a lot of the experts that I’ve talked to have said they don’t know if America is willing to pay up to change the nature of our police forces.

Rosin: Four years after Parkland, Florida, came Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen children and two teachers died at an elementary school. Recently, the Justice Department released a 600-page report on that shooting. Here’s Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta talking about their findings.

Archival: It is hard to look at the truth that the law enforcement response on May 24th was an unimaginable failure and that a lack of action by adults failed to protect children and their teachers.

Rosin: Jamie read the report. She said it was thorough and nuanced, but she still wasn’t quite satisfied with that as the simple answer.

Thompson: So I think that it’s worth really thinking about, if six cops had run into that room and started firing—cops who aren’t very good at shooting—when there’s still kids and teachers in there, you know, would lives have been saved, or would more lives have been lost? So I think the conversation needs to be more critically examined.

Rosin: It’s worth saying, by the way, that the Uvalde shooting is the reason that Texas is now one of the only states that requires active-shooter training for its police officers.

This is why I think your reporting is so important, because we are still in the era of school shootings. They can still, feels like, happen anytime, anywhere, with tragic consequences.

And yet we are still looping around, even after a thorough investigation, to the same kind of morality play, which is essentially asking, Where are our heroes? Like: Where are the people in this community who are going to sort of rise up and do what we imagine in a movie would happen in a school shooting? So we haven’t really broken that pattern.

Thompson: And I think there’s good reasons why we haven’t broken that pattern, because if you look at police departments, they are struggling to hire officers, a lot of them are short-staffed, and when you’re a police chief trying to figure out how to allocate your limited training dollars, do you spend a significant amount of money and time training your officers to handle an active-shooter call, which may or may not ever happen? Or are you better off focusing on things like crisis intervention and de-escalation, which may be more relevant to the things that they actually are required to do every day? I think most experts will tell you that active shooters are high-risk but low-frequency events, so you just have to really figure out how much time do we spend training on this skill that is incredibly difficult to master but really doesn’t happen all that often—but when it does, the consequences are tragic and severe.

Rosin: Last summer, Scot Peterson was found not guilty on all charges. Jamie was in the courtroom when the final verdict was read.

Thompson: The moment was very tense. I mean, as the deliberations went on for four days, Peterson seemed to me to sort of deteriorate by the day, Um, you know, he seemed to go into the process with a certain level of hopefulness. I remember talking to him before the trial, and, and I asked him, you know, what does this trial mean for you? And he said, you know, it’s not I’m not guilty; it’s that I’m innocent.

It’s that I’m exonerated from my labeling as the Coward of Broward, that everyone will understand that I—what I did that day, I did for good reason, and it was part of my training and part of my experience that was a perfectly reasonable reaction.

So when the jury came back with the verdict, he just laid his head on the table and wept. It was just this sort of release of emotion. But at the same moment, you can see some of the victims’ families sitting also in the courtroom. And they have been waiting for someone to be held accountable for the fact that their children are gone.

They were very disappointed when Nikolas Cruz did not receive the death penalty, when he got a life sentence. And so, to them, the fact that Peterson faced no criminal charges was just really one more blow, to the effect that no one was going to be held responsible for their kids’ deaths.

Rosin: And did he get what he was looking for?

I mean, he was found not guilty, but was he considered innocent more broadly?

Thompson: It’s interesting. I talked to him a week or two ago, and I asked him if he felt like he had—you know, he had told me early on that he really wanted to get out of this emotional prison that he’d been living in for five years. And when I asked him if he’d managed to, he basically said he had not.

You know, you can’t undo a word like coward. You can’t really undo the stain that that leaves. So I think both him and his attorney were sort of grappling with this reality that they had gotten their moment in court. They had had the chance to tell their story. And maybe people understood better what had happened, but there’s still this feeling that everyone wishes he had done more.

[Music]

Rosin: Which, given the tragedy of that day, is understandable. That feeling is just too strong for any court verdict to erase.

This episode of Radio Atlantic was produced by Kevin Townsend. It was edited by Claudine Ebeid, fact-checked by Sara Krolewski, and engineered by Rob Smierciak. Claudine Ebeid is the executive producer for Atlantic Audio, and Andrea Valdez is our managing editor. I’m Hanna Rosin. Thank you for listening.

Hanna Rosin is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the host of Radio Atlantic.

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