Column: A shameful failure of responsibility

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Saturday, June 08, 2019

I write on the anniversary of D-Day, the momentous turn in World War II when the Allies stormed multiple beaches and began the march across Europe, liberating the world from Hitler’s murderous grip. Thousands of Allied soldiers, the vast majority Americans, British and Canadians, died on the beaches or during the days immediately following the invasion. Two years earlier, 3,600 Canadian troops were wounded, killed or captured in the Dieppe Raid that, while a military failure, set the stage for the liberation of Europe on D-Day. My father-in-law was among those brave Canadians, was a prisoner of war, and bore the emotional and physical scars for the rest of his life.

The somber memories of D-Day coincide with the arrest of Scot Peterson, who served as an armed resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and who is being charged with multiple felonies for failing to confront Nikolas Cruz, the former student accused of slaughtering 17 students and staff members and wounding 17 more. Rather than rushing toward the gunshots, Peterson moved to relative safety, where he remained for 48 minutes. Detailed news reports and surveillance video tell a story of gross incompetence by multiple law enforcement personnel and school officials. Peterson alone is being charged with neglect of a child, culpable negligence and perjury.

As a school leader in the years of unthinkable gun violence, I often imagined the unimaginable. What would I do if an armed maniac attacked my school? I know the answer, and it is not because I am brave. I knew then, and I know now, that the fear of living with shame would be far greater than the possibility of death. I had rehearsed that moment in my mind over and over again to the point that my reaction would not be optional. Easy to say when not tested, I suppose.

Reaction to Peterson’s indictment has been mixed. The charges are without precedent and the legal case may be difficult. His excuses, and the sympathy he draws from many, are not persuasive. Fear and confusion under this kind of pressure are understandable. But can we expect heroic behavior from an ordinary middle-aged man? Yes, and we must.

Peterson was a law enforcement officer for 35 years, nine of them at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Since Peterson began work as a resource officer, there have been 288 school shootings, according to CNN. Peterson participated in at least four “active shooter” training sessions during his time as a resource officer. He appears to have been an instructor in one of them. This training is clear: The first responsibility of armed law enforcement is to approach and confront the shooter, not to secure the perimeter or seek personal safety.

It is not possible to serve in this role, responsible for the lives of children, and not imagine, over and over and over again, the scenario Peterson finally faced. He faced it, and turned away.

Some, including Peterson’s lawyers, claim that he is a scapegoat, put forward to absorb the blame for a tragedy with multiple, complex causes. I don’t buy it. Being one among many who are culpable is not mitigation.

I am mindful that Peterson is not the cause of school violence. I would prefer that gun zealots like the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre be given a handgun and a badge and tested to see if they would confront a killer with an AR-15.

I would prefer that a conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones, who has claimed that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax, might have to put his own reprehensible life on the line.

I would prefer that President Bone Spurs be called on to prove that he would have rushed into the building unarmed. I wish those who traffic in weapons of mass destruction would have to face down killers, rather than hide behind their cowardly Second Amendment shield.

Scot Peterson didn’t have to be a deputy sheriff or armed school resource officer. He chose that work and, to the disgust of many, is receiving a $100,000 pension in retirement. I don’t know whether a long prison sentence is merited. It almost doesn’t matter. If he has a conscience, his life sentence is already being served.

But as we remember the thousands of men who stormed beaches of Normandy, facing likely death, we must not excuse one who turned away.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at stevehutnelson@gmail.com.