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Broward sheriff investigating claims that multiple deputies failed to enter Parkland school ‘when they should have’

Melissa Goldsmith weeps outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 18. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office said it is investigating allegations that multiple deputies failed to enter Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after the shooting rampage there, adding to the mounting internal probes examining the department’s response to the attack and its prior interactions with the suspect.

Authorities have faced criticism about the series of unheeded warning signs that preceded the Feb. 14 massacre. These warnings about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old charged with the killings, included tips saying he could be capable of carrying out a school shooting. The FBI received such a tip in January but never investigated it. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office said it received two similar warnings, but there is no evidence that either prompted any investigation.

Officials have also faced difficult questions about what happened after the shooting began inside Stoneman Douglas. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel acknowledged Thursday that an armed deputy, serving as the school resource officer at Stoneman Douglas, got to the scene of the shooting but failed to go inside, violating accepted police protocol. That deputy, Scot Peterson, a three-decade veteran of the sheriff’s office, resigned after being suspended.

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The Broward County Sheriff’s Office has said it is investigating how the agency responded to the gunfire that killed 17 students and faculty at Stoneman Douglas. The sheriff’s office said in a statement Saturday that “detectives are investigating the claims from [the] Coral Springs Police Department that some deputies did not go into the school when they should have.”

Israel, the sheriff, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Friday that if investigators find “that our deputies made mistakes and didn’t go in, I’ll handle it like I always have.”

According to a CNN report, police officers from Coral Springs, a neighboring city, said that when they got to the scene, they found at least three other sheriff’s deputies, in addition to Peterson, still outside.

Late Saturday, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office released a statement as well as a letter from Sheriff Israel pushing back against media coverage and some of the criticisms that has emerged in recent days. In the sheriff’s letter, which was sent to Gov. Rick Scott (R), Israel emphasized that Peterson was the only law enforcement officer on the campus during the shooting itself.

Israel wrote that Coral Springs police received the initial 911 call and, when they arrived at the school, went inside first without knowing that the shooter had left four minutes earlier. He also wrote that “it is believed Coral Springs Police Department officers arrived first at the school.”

In his letter, Israel said these Coral Springs officers who went inside first were followed by others from that department as well as Broward sheriff’s deputies; he does not say whether those deputies had waited outside first. His letter was sent to Scott in response to a Florida state representative’s call Saturday for the governor to remove the sheriff, who was reelected in 2016, from office.

Also Saturday night, Israel’s office emphasized that it had not confirmed the allegations that other deputies responded to the scene and waited to go inside.

“There is no confirmation, at this time, other deputies did not enter the school when they should have,” Veda Coleman-Wright, the spokeswoman, said in the statement late Saturday. “Again, it’s a claim being investigated to determine if further action is warranted.”

Noting that there are “multiple investigations being conducted in addition to the Stoneman Douglas shooting,” she said the office’s investigators would not rush the process. She added: “It is more important for us to wait and let investigators get it right, even if some media outlets are getting it wrong.”

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Coral Springs police released a statement saying they were “aware of media reports” but were not going to make statements “regarding these allegations as it is still an open and active investigation being handled by the Broward Sheriff’s Office.”

“Our police department has continued to work alongside the Broward Sheriff’s Office to assist in any investigation pertaining to this incident,” the Coral Springs police statement said. “The Coral Springs Police Department has a tremendous working relationship with the men and women of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, and while we are being transparent through this investigation, everyone should respect the process.”

Tony Pustizzi, the Coral Springs police chief, did not respond to a message seeking comment Saturday. He said earlier this week that his department, headquartered just a few miles down the road from Stoneman Douglas in a city where many of the students live, will also review its response to the shooting.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., texted their loved ones as an active shooter terrorized their school on Feb. 14. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Alice Li, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Officials have said they are reviewing how they handled the warnings about Cruz, including the fumbled FBI tip. In January, a woman described by the bureau as close to Cruz contacted the FBI tip line and said he could “get into a school and just shoot the place up,” according to a transcript of the call obtained by The Post.

The woman told the FBI that she was worried Cruz was “going to explode,” the transcript showed. “Something is going to happen,” the caller said. She is also quoted as saying she had passed the information to local police.

The FBI has acknowledged that it made mistakes in handling the warning and said the bureau was investigating both what happened and how it handles tips from the public.

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office said this week that among the 23 calls it received relating to Cruz or his family over the last decade were two with warnings that the teenager could potentially open fire at a school. Both calls have since prompted internal affairs probes, the sheriff’s office said.

In February 2016, a caller warned that Cruz “planned to shoot up the school.” A deputy spoke to the caller, learned that Cruz had knives and a BB gun and relayed information from the call to Peterson, the deputy serving as the Stoneman Douglas resource officer. It remains unclear what Peterson, who has not responded to attempts to reach him, did with the information.

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The following year, the Broward sheriff’s office said, it got a call warning that Cruz was collecting guns and knives and could be “a school shooter in the making.” That call, made in November 2017, came less than three months before the Stoneman Douglas massacre. It noted that Cruz, whose mother died that month, had moved from Parkland to a home in Palm Beach County.

According to the Broward sheriff’s office, no report was filed on the call, and a deputy interviewed after the Stoneman Douglas shooting said he referred the caller to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. A spokeswoman for that office told The Washington Post on Friday that they “have NO RECORD of getting this threat.”

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office said it was unable to provide more information about what may have happened after that call because of the ongoing internal probe.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., traveled to their state capital on Feb. 20 to ask lawmakers for gun reform. (Video: Alice Li, Whitney Shefte, Michael Landsberg/The Washington Post, Photo: Charlotte Kesl/The Washington Post)

Investigations after mass shootings often reveal numerous things that could have been handled better, both during the bloodshed and in the months or years leading up to it. Daniel J. Oates, who was the police chief in Aurora, Colo., during the 2012 mass shooting there, said law enforcement officials would scrutinize any missteps, but he cautioned against drawing conclusions until these investigations have been concluded.

“Everyone just needs to remember that entire community, including those first responders, are all victims, and they’re going to live with this for the rest of their lives, and it’s very painful,” Oates, who is now the police chief in Miami Beach, said in an interview. “Everyone’s going to ask themselves, ‘Could I have done something differently?’ ”

Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report, which has been updated. 

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