Parkland Officer’s Acquittal Raises Questions About School Cops’ Duty to Protect

A jury found the disgraced former deputy was not legally required to risk his life to stop the gunman in a first-ever criminal trial.

Former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School School Resource Officer Scot Peterson reacts as he is found not guilty on all charges at the Broward County Courthouse on Thursday, June 29, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Getty Images)

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Less than a month after a gunman killed 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, lawmakers required an armed official be stationed at every K-12 school statewide. The intent after the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre was clear: Schools are acutely vulnerable targets and the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. 

The Florida law led to unprecedented growth in school-based policing, though it’s part of a trend that’s played out again and again over the last several decades. In the immediate aftermath of tragic school massacres, which are statistically rare but growing more common, lawmakers have repeatedly bolstered funding for campus cops. Federal officials have spent more than $1 billion on school-based policing since 1998. This spring, Texas became the latest state to require an armed security officer at every campus following the May 2022 shooting in Uvalde, which led to the deaths of 19 elementary school children and two teachers.

Yet in Florida, former school-based officer Scot Peterson, who was stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a handgun and a bulletproof vest, was dubbed the “Coward of Broward” for failing to confront the teenage gunman armed with an AR-15 style assault rifle. Instead, he took cover outside as the sound of gunshots poured from the building for four minutes. In Uvalde, 375 officers from 23 law enforcement agencies responded to the elementary school but waited more than an hour to confront and kill the 18-year-old shooter. 

Police inaction in both cases has raised a similar question: Once a bad guy with a gun pops off his first shot inside a school, what level of responsibility do armed police officers have to stop them? 

In a first-of-its-kind trial to examine a school resource officer’s alleged criminal liability for failing to intervene, Peterson faced seven counts of child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence and one perjury charge. On June 29, a jury acquitted the 60-year-old former sheriff’s deputy, an outcome that experts predicted but said could complicate police accountability efforts in Uvalde, where officers’ inaction sparked outrage and is still under investigation. 

The Parkland verdict raises big questions about the role that police play in schools nationally — and challenges the very reason that so many were stationed at campuses in the first place. 

For Peterson, who claimed he waited outside the school because he couldn’t tell where the sounds of gunshots were coming from, the verdict reaffirmed his position that he had done nothing wrong and that the charges against him were politically motivated scapegoating. 

“We’ve got our life back after four and a half years,” Peterson said outside the Fort Lauderdale courtroom while standing next to his wife. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster for so long.” 

The comment infuriated the parents of children who died while Peterson stood just 75 feet away from the building and who will never get their lives back. To them and others who have sought greater accountability from the since-fired officer, the verdict set a bad precedent. 

“For the first time in our nation’s history, prosecutors in this case have tried to hold an armed school resource officer responsible for not doing his job,” Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor said in a statement after the verdict. “We did so because we think it’s important not only to our community, but to the country as a whole.”

As head of the leading professional organization for school-based police officers, Mo Canady is the first person to defend the presence and value of having cops in schools. In an interview with The 74, Canady gave a sharp critique of Peterson’s inaction. Peterson, and all officers, “have a duty to protect whether you think of it in terms of being charged criminally or not,” said Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. 

“When we became police officers and you raised your right hand, you swore an oath to protect and serve,” Canady said. “Part of that is having to deal with violent situations and potential deadly conflict.”

‘Police are not the military’ 

“To protect and serve” has been a calling card for law enforcement dating back to the 1950s, yet courts on multiple occasions have made clear the slogan isn’t legally binding. This precedent foreshadowed the uphill challenge for prosecutors in Florida. 

Police are routinely charged — and on occasion found guilty — for police misconduct including excessive use of force. Charges for failing to act, however, are far less common. And in the cases that do exist, courts have generally sided with the defendants

In 1981, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that police have a general duty to provide public services but “no specific legal duty exists” to protect specific individuals. In another case, from 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court held that police in Colorado could not be sued for failing to protect a woman whose husband violated a protective order to kidnap and kill their three children. 

To justify child neglect charges in the Peterson trial, prosecutors argued that the school-based officer was a “caregiver” under Florida law responsible for the welfare of students at the school where he was assigned. Indeed, since their introduction in schools, police officers have been cast in the role of having close protective relationships with students in a way that’s different from how officers typically interact with people on the streets. That persona is often invoked to make officers’ presence in schools more palatable. In the Parkland case, jurors had to determine whether Peterson had caregiver status legally and if that created a duty to risk his own life. 

Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, called the charges against Peterson “preposterous,” arguing that officers should not be legally required to put themselves into situations where they could be killed. 

“The police really don’t sign up for that — they really don’t,” O’Donnell said. “Some will rise to the occasion, but the police are not the military, the police are civilians with guns who have very, very basic rudimentary peacekeeping skills.”

In an email, Mark Eiglarsh, Peterson’s criminal defense attorney, maintained that his client couldn’t identify the specific locations of gunshots, and that other responding officers believed the blasts were coming from a football field hundreds of yards away. Reverberations and echoes off the concrete buildings, he said, “made knowing where the shooter was virtually impossible.” 

“Hopefully, prosecutors will choose not to pursue baseless and meritless charges like this ever again,” he said. “They put this 32-year veteran deputy through hell, solely motivated by politics.” 

Eiglarsh refuted a “false narrative” that Peterson “chose to cower and ‘do nothing’ instead of confronting the killer,” noting that he called officers for backup and scanned the area to determine the shooter’s location. 

Samuel Walker, a national expert on police misconduct and professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, believes that Peterson should have been convicted, and not just because he was assigned to protect students.

“He failed to act — he failed to act in an emergency situation where his action could have helped save a bunch of lives,” said Walker, who added that officers should be held accountable for failing to keep people safe, even if it means risking their own lives. “That’s true of all officers who are just working a regular police department job. Yes, it’s a high-risk situation.” 

In civil court, officers are often shielded by qualified immunity, which protects officers from liability for mistakes made on the job. In 2020, a federal appeals court threw out a lawsuit by 15 Marjory Stoneman students who survived the massacre and argued that Peterson’s failure to act violated their constitutional rights. But other civil suits remain and attorney David Brill, who represents shooting victims’ families, seeks to dispel Peterson’s claims that he couldn’t determine the direction of gunshots. Brill has asked a judge to approve a recorded sound test at the site of the shooting by firing blanks from an AR-15-style rifle. 

“We don’t want to leave anything to chance for Peterson to escape justice in our civil case like he escaped justice in the criminal case,” Brill told The Associated Press. 

Peterson’s civil defense attorney Michael Piper, who acknowledged some 50 civil suits against his client, declined to comment. 

Harold Jordan, the nationwide education equity coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the real breakdown was in school and law enforcement officials’ failure to take preventative actions after multiple warnings suggested the gunman, now serving a life sentence, had weapons and could become violent. 

“I can’t think of any major studies that show that stationing police in schools prevents someone with high-capacity weaponry from causing carnage,” he said. “There’s definitely no evidence that adding more police to schools is going to prevent that from happening when you’re dealing with a school shooter who knows something about the school and is packing a doggone arsenal. That’s the situation that we’re in.”

Shootings bolster school policing 

Though officers have been stationed in schools since the 1950s, their presence has grown significantly in the last 25 years in response to mass school shootings. Since then, heated debates have explored the officers’ roles, responsibilities and efficacy.

Emerging research has begun to offer insight into officers’ ability to keep kids safe. A report published this month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that the introduction of school-based officers has led to a reduction in reported incidents of certain kinds of violence like fights. Yet they led to an increase in reported incidents of gun-related violence, a finding the authors conclude suggests that campus police “do not prevent gun-related incidents.” However, report co-author Shawn Bushway acknowledged that campus police could improve the reporting and detection of campus gun violence. 

Ultimately, officials’ decisions to place police in schools after mass shootings may not be driven by evidence, said Bushway, an adjunct policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the University at Albany – State University of New York

“The evidence is that cops in schools make people feel safer and, you know, that’s part of the battle, right?” Bushway said. “We show that there’s an increase in firearm offenses but we don’t know whether that’s because they’re more likely to ferret them out or because somehow kids are more likely to bring guns to school if there’s a cop involved.”

A similar report, by researchers with the nonprofit Violence Project, found that officers may be ineffective at preventing bloodshed during school shootings. Researchers analyzed 133 school shootings over four decades and found that fatalities were three times higher in attacks where an armed guard was present compared to those that unfolded without a security presence. Because the perpetrators of mass shootings are often suicidal, researchers believe shooters may be drawn to locations with armed security. 

“When that’s the case, having an armed person is not a deterrent — that person may actually be part of their plan,” said David Riedman, creator of the K-12 School Shooting Database, which tracks firearm incidents in schools. “Really, all of this is just a Band-Aid to the bigger problem, which is access to firearms and people that are able to get them who are interested and willing to commit violence.”

Though Peterson escaped criminal liability, for the last several decades school-based police have been trained to confront shooters — even at the cost of their own lives. Such standards grew out of the 1999 Columbine mass school shooting in suburban Denver, with the realization that every second counts during a mass shooting, most of which are carried out in a matter of minutes. 

Though experts said the trial against Peterson may dissuade some people from pursuing jobs as school-based cops, Canady of the National Association of School Resource Officers said that most officers will rush to danger to keep students safe.

“I don’t think most officers are going to have it in their head that, ‘Hey, if I don’t respond, I may be criminally liable,’ ” he said. “I think what they’re going to have in their head is, ‘Somebody’s killing kids in my school and I’ve got to stop it.’ ” 

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