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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Arresting deputy in Parkland massacre not the answer

There's a difference between being a coward and a criminal. That's one reason why the charges against a former Broward County sheriff's deputy who hid during the Parkland school massacre seem like a stretch. Another is that singling out one person for criminal prosecution paints an inaccurate picture of a systemic breakdown at every level.

Former school resource officer Scot Peterson was arrested Tuesday on 11 charges for failing to enter a building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and pursue Nikolas Cruz, who shot and killed 17 in February 2018. Peterson insists he acted properly and was not sure where Cruz was, but an arrest warrant says he "was aware" that Cruz was inside the building and "knowingly and willingly failed to act" to protect those inside. He is charged with seven counts of child neglect, three misdemeanor counts of culpable negligence and one misdemeanor count of perjury for lying during questioning by investigators.

The details alleged in the heavily redacted 41-page arrest affidavit would upset any parent. The affidavit says Peterson "was responsible for the welfare and safety" of the students yet "remained in his position of cover" outside even after hearing gunshots. Authorities said Cruz fired about 140 times, including about 75 times after Peterson arrived outside the building. As Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the state commission that investigated the shooting, says in more colorful language, that's unacceptable.

But filing criminal charges against Peterson, who retired shortly after the shooting and now has been officially fired, glosses over a multitude of institutional failures that contributed to the tragedy. The Broward County School District ignored and mishandled Cruz's behavioral and discipline issues when he was a student. The former student was recognized but not stopped after entering the campus through an unstaffed open gate. The school suffered other key safety gaps, and multiple deputies heard gunfire but did not immediately enter the building. The FBI never investigated several tips about Cruz in the months before the attack.

The multitude of mistakes do not excuse Peterson's failure to enter the building immediately and go after the shooter. If he lied to investigators, it's fine to charge him with perjury. But failing to act appropriately or courageously is not the same as acting illegally. Charging law enforcement officials in this way is extremely rare, and it also sends a chilling message to teachers and staff who volunteer to be trained and armed.

The sponsor of this year's bill that allows classroom teachers to carry guns says armed teachers could be criminally liable if they fail to appropriately respond to an active shooter. This comes after the state has amended the Department of Education's insurance policy for teachers to exclude coverage for claims arising out of "armed instructional personnel while acting in the scope of their activities for the educational institution."

Training and arming classroom teachers is a terrible idea on its face. But why would any teacher or staff member volunteer to be trained and armed if they know up front they could be charged with a crime if someone accuses them of failing to properly respond to a shooter in the school — and they won't even be insured?

It's intellectually dishonest to single out only the former school resource officer for criminal charges when so many others failed Stoneman Douglas students and staff. It's further disturbing that teachers and staff who agree to carry guns in schools now face the prospect they could be prosecuted for not rushing a shooter. This is hardly the thoughtful response that the victims' families and all Floridians deserve.

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