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PARKLAND, FL - 20 FEBRUARY 2019: Tyra Heman (R) a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is hugged by Rachael Buto in front of the school where 17 people that were killed on 14 February, on 19 February 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Police arrested 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz for killing 17 people at the high school. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida Jury Acquits Former Parkland SRO of All Charges

A Florida jury acquitted former school resource officer (SRO) Scot Peterson of all charges for failing to act during the Parkland school shooting that killed 17 people.

Peterson, a former Broward County sheriff’s deputy assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was charged with perjury, seven counts of child neglect, and three counts of culpable negligence for injuries and deaths of 10 people on the third floor of the high school building when the shooting carried out by Nikolas Cruz occurred. After deliberating for more than 19 hours, the jury found Peterson not guilty on all counts early Thursday evening.

“This was a malicious prosecution that put me and my wife in a living hell for four years,” Peterson said in a statement shared with Security Management through his attorney, Mark Eiglarsh. “During the shooting, I did everything I could with the limited information I had. My heart goes out to all the families whose loved ones were killed or injured as a result of this tragedy.”

Eiglarsh did not provide comment on Peterson’s actions the day of the Parkland shooting.

“The prosecutors tried to sacrifice and pursue baseless charges against a man who did everything he could with the limited information he had under the most stressful of circumstances,” Eiglarsh said in a statement. “We remain concerned for future law enforcement officers who are well intended and do all they can, yet get crucified by prosecutors who revel in second guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking their actions.”

In the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission Initial Report, published in January 2019, commissioners called Peterson’s response “abysmal” and part of an overall “unsatisfactory law enforcement response” to the 2018 shooting.

“Former Deputy Scot Peterson was derelict in his duty on February 14, 2018, failed to act consistently with his training, and fled to a position of personal safety while Cruz shot and killed MSDHS students and staff,” the commission wrote. “Peterson was in a position to engage Cruz and mitigate further harm to others, and he willfully decided not to do so.”

Peterson was one of eight people assigned to school security functions at the high school and the only armed security practitioner on site. He attended annual Florida Association of School Resource Officers (FASRO) Conferences between 2008 and 2018 where security issues were covered; he also received in-service training for active shooter response in April 2016.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office trained Peterson “on active shooter response, and he was familiar with solo-deputy response protocols,” according to the commission. “Peterson knew through his training that the appropriate response was to seek out the active shooter and not ‘containment.’”

On 14 February 2018, Peterson arrived on the scene shortly after the gunman had entered the building and begun firing but did not go inside. In an interview with investigators, Peterson—and the other law enforcement personnel on the scene—said they heard gunshots inside the school but did not enter the building to seek out the shooter, the commission reported.

Peterson also told investigators that during this time, he was on his service radio to report a “Code Red” for lockdown, but further review found that Peterson did not complete this action; Campus Monitor Elliot Bonner was the only person to report a Code Red on the day of the shooting.

While the response continued, Peterson took a position outside of the main building where the shooting was taking place and held that position for almost 48 minutes. In an interview with The Today Show about his actions in the months following the shooting, Peterson said he held that position because he was trained to contain the area.

“A review of [Broward Sheriff’s Office] training plans reveals this is inconsistent with what he was trained to do in response to an active shooter,” the commission found. “It is well-known within the law enforcement community that the response after the shooting at Columbine High School is no longer to contain and wait for SWAT; the proper response is to move toward the sound of gunfire and engage the suspects.”

Additionally, the commission’s review found that when other law enforcement officers arrived at the high school to respond to the shooting, Peterson instructed them to stay at least 500 feet away from the building where the shooting was taking place.

“These instructions conflict with current law enforcement response procedures to active shooter situations,” the commission explained. “Law enforcement officers should try to eliminate any immediate threat even if it requires approaching gunfire and danger.”

The trial was the first of its kind against a school resource officer in the United States and was being carefully watched by the school security community, especially as the investigation continues into the response by law enforcement to the Uvalde school shooting.

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), was one of those following the trial to see what the impact would be on SROs.

“It really is unprecedented in terms of what [Peterson] was being charged with in this circumstance,” Canady says. “There’s interest in our part on how that ends. There is a duty to protect students on campus. But if we’re going to reach the level where we charge SROs for that failure to protect, then some of the laws are going to need to be changed.

“It’s like Pandora’s Box once it’s opened,” he continued. “It’s a different level of what we’ve got to prepare SROs for, the obligation that they have under the law and what that can look like in a school environment.”

NASRO provides training for active shooter scenarios in its Basic SRO Course, as well as resources on best practices for preventing and responding to an active shooter situation at a school. The Parkland shooting was “certainly a situation where we have an officer who was not trained by us and didn’t respond the way we like to see officers to respond,” Canady says.

Improved SRO training was one of the recommendations made by the commission in its report.

“SROs typically are not faced with many high-risk, high-stress situations such as domestic violence calls, robberies, shootings, etc.,” the commission wrote. “As a result, they are not afforded the chance to maintain and exercise their tactical skills other than in training scenarios. For that reason, it is of the utmost importance that SROs be provided with frequent, thorough, and realistic training to handle high-risk, high-stress situations.”

And when choosing someone for an SRO role, Canady says it is critically important that these individuals are carefully selected and trained to meet the unique requirements of the job.

“They need to be a veteran of the department with at least three years of experience, an officer without disciplinary problems, an officer with good communication skills who can get into a classroom and present to students and adults on the law—officers who have a sincere desire to work with youth in an appropriate way,” Canady says.

During the trial, prosecutors attempted to demonstrate that as an SRO, Peterson had a caretaking responsibility to students at the high school. The jury found that argument unpersuasive, but in a statement released by his office, Broward County State Attorney Harold F. Pryor said it was important to bring the case because of the expectations on and responsibilities SROs have.

“As parents, we have an expectation that armed school resource officers—who are under contract to be caregivers to our children—will do their jobs when we entrust our children to them and the schools they guard,” Pryor said. “They have a special role and responsibilities that exceed the role and responsibilities of a police officer.”

For more resources on creating effective active assailant prevention and response procedures, check out our Active Assailant topic page.