The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission Report: A Teaching Moment

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

On January 2nd, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission released its initial report.  Much was made in the press about one of the recommendations. However, the report is more than a single recommendation.  It begins in the only way possible, in loving memory of the seventeen people who lost their lives on that awful February day in Parkland, Florida.  Those who were lost on that day are remembered in photographs, poetry, prayers, and, of course, love.  Members of the commission are introduced with a brief synopsis of their credentials and their involvement with the report. Then the preface begins, “School safety in Florida needs to be improved.”

What follows is a carefully detailed, very raw, and unflinching second-by-second account of the events leading up to, during, and after the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) on 14 February 2018.  Despite the attempts of some to make it so, this report is not a validation of partisan ideas.  Nor is it a political football.  It is, most appropriately, a teaching tool.  Members of the commission reviewed the cruel facts of the incident and produced an instrument for other school systems to use to prevent this type of tragedy happening in their own schools, to their own children.

To be clear, it is not our purpose to second guess, to criticize, or to comment in any way about either the actions taken on the day of the shooting or the contents of the report. Rather, we choose to follow the lead of the commission and use this as a teaching tool – to learn from this report the ways in which security systems like those provided by Athena Security can be employed to the best possible advantage to aid community leaders as they work to harden schools and prevent tragedy from happening again.  We will look at the events as they occurred and consider strategies for employing electronic security in schools.  In short, we will do our best to learn from this report, and to use what we learn to move forward with the best preventative measures we can design.

All of the shootings that day took place in a single structure known as “Building 12” or “The 1200 Building” which is located on the Northeast corner of the MSDHS campus near the corner of Pine Island and Holmberg Roads.  The rectangular Building 12 houses thirty classrooms on three floors with a stairwell at either end.  All classrooms open onto a central corridor on each floor.  Each classroom has only one door.  The shooter entered the building via an unlocked, unmonitored door and turned into a stairwell.  No one saw him enter the building at 2:21:16. One student saw him as he loaded his weapon.  At that moment, Nikolas Cruz told the boy to “run.”  No one else knew he was there.  No one saw him raise his rifle to fire, fail, correct the failure, and raise the weapon again.  Within seconds, four students had been shot.  Only one survived.

The concussion from the shots loosened dust and material from the acoustic tiles in the corridor ceiling.  Cruz fired into a nearby classroom, killing three more and wounding five.  Dust from the ceiling tiles impeded the recording function of camerasin the hallway.  The shooter moved on to the next classrooms.  There were six victims including two fatalities.  At roughly this point, the first 911 call was placed to area police.  Seconds later, dust from the ceiling triggered fire alarms in Building 12.  Students on the third floor, unaware of what was happening just two floors below, began to respond as if to a fire drill.  They made ready to evacuate the building via the two stairwells at either end. Students on the second floor, who had heard the gunfire, fled into their classrooms and hid out of sight in corners of the classroom not visible from the small window in the door.  Cruz fired into another first-floor classroom.  The shot was heard by students in the stair wells who were evacuating from the third floor. They turned around and headed up the stairs crowding in the hallway.  Meanwhile Cruz fired into yet another classroom – another death.

No one outside of Building 12 knew what was happening.  Law enforcement radioed “possible shots fired.”  Front office personnel had no idea that students had been killed, that the shooting was continuing.  There was a report that someone might have fire crackers in Building 12.  As Cruz made his way through the second floor of Building 12, he found no targets. Students and teachers on that floor, aware that there was a shooter in the building, had responded by moving quietly into areas out of sight of the hallway.  Students on the third floor were beginning to panic.  Teachers tried to keep order, to move vulnerable students into classrooms.  There were problems with doors that were locked when they shouldn’t have been.  No one was sure where the shooter was or where he would fire next.  Fire alarms were shut off.  No live video feed was available to law enforcement or administrators.  No communication was available between teachers in Building 12 and law enforcement on scene or administrators at the front office.

When Cruz made his way to the third floor, approximately twenty people were crowded into the hallway, apparently still uncertain what was happening.  He fired into the crowd wounding four, killing six.  Cruz reloaded.  It was roughly at this time that the first “code red” was called on campus radios.  Cruz shot four more people. Police were beginning to arrive outside the building.  At 2:27:10, Cruz fired his last shot.  He dropped his rifle and remaining rounds and joined a group fleeing students.  He walked to a neighboring parking lot, then, ultimately, on to a fast food restaurant where he sat with the brother of one of his victims. Police, unable to see inside the building, were unaware that the shooter had left.  Injured students lay bleeding on the floor.  Twenty-five minutes after Cruz had left the building, police were still looking for him in Building 12.  The video tape, it seemed, was on a delay.  Police believed they were looking at live video.  They were not.

When the shooting was over, fourteen students and three staff members lay dead, another seventeen injured.  The mourning had begun.  Surviving students and their families remain forever traumatized by the events of that February afternoon when one young man shot thirty-four people – killing seventeen. It is impossible to read through the events of that single hour without feeling some of the anxiety, the pain, and the panic those children and their teachers must have felt in those critical moments.  Naturally, the first questions on everyone’s lips were, “How did this happen? Why us?” The MSDHS report answers the “how” in graphic, heart-wrenching detail.  They rely on others to continue working on the “why.”  Now, almost a year later, it is our duty to ask, “How can we prevent this happening again?”

Athena Security has proposed an answer.  After successfully creating and growing a number of startups, serial entrepreneurs Lisa Falzone and Chris Ciabarra dedicated their talents to creating a security camera system that would use artificial intelligence and cloud-based systems to help prevent mass shootings.  Like the rest of us, they had watched with shock and heartbreak as school after school endured the horror of a single gunman, with cruel randomness, killing innocent children.  They asked themselves, “what would it take?”  And so,Athena Security was founded.  Athena Security artificial intelligence system can recognize threatening actions, like the raising of a gun, and alert law-enforcement to the threat before a shot is fired.  Once alerted, law-enforcement can access real-time video and audio.  Facial recognition software may even let law-enforcement know exactly who they are dealing with.

It is difficult to read the MSDHS report without thinking about how Athena Security may have changed the outcomes for so many.  Sadly, there is nothing to be gained by imagining what might have been at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School if different technologies had been available. What has happened has happened. Those who were lost will not be reunited with their families by might-have-been.  What we can do is consider the future of our schools in the seeming inevitability that such things will happen again.  We can take what there is to be learned from this report and apply it to future scenarios.  School administrators can identify areas on their own campuses where there are vulnerabilities.  If there are unlocked, unmanned doors and gates, they can install a camera.  If there are existing cameras, Athena will plug into the existing hardware, instantly upgrading their capabilities.

Imagine a middle school in a busy, thriving suburb in Any state, America.  The buildings are in good shape, but aging.  Burgeoning populations have caused the school to expand into portable buildings over what used to be a parking area near a busy street. There’s a perimeter fence, but the children make a shortcut at the corner by pulling away part of the chain link fence near some trees – well out of sight of the office building.  Anyone who has ever attended school there knows about the shortcut.  Early in the morning, the portable buildings are unlocked so students can make their way to their homerooms.  Teachers are near the end of the make-shift corridors outside, keeping an eye out for bad behavior, bullying, the odd cigarette.  No one sees the gunman with a rifle near the far corner of the building, just below the railing.  No one saw him sneaking along the tree line by the shortcut.  He opens his bag and lifts his rifle preparing to shoot.

Now, imagine that same school with an Athena Camera system.  Athena Security spot him walking along the side of the building, see him raising his gun to load it.  They notify law-enforcement and school administrators.  Administrators call a Code Red with the precise location of the shooter so that teachers can move students in the opposite direction.  The shooter is identified. Law enforcement is on its way – all while viewing live feed from the area.  They can even speak to the shooter, alerting him to the fact that he has been seen, that police are on their way, that they know who he is, and that he will shortly be under arrest.  The shooter has no time to seek out potential victims.  He is instructed to drop his weapon and surrender.  Sirens are heard approaching.  The children have been successfully moved to other areas of the campus.

This is precisely the scenario that Athena Security were designed to create.  Security cameras are incapable of preventing intent. Shooters will attack schools for reasons the rest of us cannot fathom.  However, Athena Security were created to help prevent the shooter’s intent from becoming action – to help prevent students from becoming victims.  They can recognize the raising of a gun, provide real-time, actionable intelligence to administrators and law-enforcement.  They can help us prevent tragedy before a single shot is fired. Their smart security camera and alarm system uses human-computer vision to see and understand threats. When a gunman tries to take a life, Athena can see the threat before it becomes a tragedy.

Athena Security wants what everyone else wants: safer schools, workplaces, shopping areas, and public spaces.  Athena was engineered with leading edge technology to help provide the most effective crime prevention possible in a security camera system.  What was done in Parkland in February of 2018 cannot be undone. But it is possible to prevent tragedy from happening again.

Our hearts go out to all of the individuals and families that were affected by this tragedy.