Deadly Florida shooting rattles metro Atlanta students and staff

Credit: Gerald Herbert

Credit: Gerald Herbert

Catherine Huynh went to classes at Berkmar High School on Thursday morning knowing how lucky she was.

About 650 miles away in Parkland, Fla., roughly the population of Acworth, more than 3,000 students stayed home because expelled student Nikolas Cruz allegedly gunned down 17 people at his former school Wednesday.

Huynh, an 18-year-old senior in Lilburn, said she has never felt at risk at Berkmar, but the Parkland shooting “feels very close” because the students were her age.

“Yesterday, I was thinking, ‘This is a regular high school. These kids are my age, and some of them are dead now,’ ” Huynh said. “It could happen to me, and it’s scary because these bright young people aren’t here anymore.”

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Huynh’s parents have told her what to do in case an active shooter comes to her school: “Lie down, stay on the floor and don’t be a hero.”

Some metro Atlanta parents putting kids in school for the first time get a bitter dose of grown-up reality when their children, with ages in the single digits, come home talking about shooter drills of ducking, covering and escaping in case of an armed person.

Georgia law requires that every public school prepare a school safety plan. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency is directed to provide school training. But plans vary by district and school and can be inconsistently applied.

Across metro Atlanta, the shooting had school officials reassessing readiness.

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Marquenta Sands Hall, head of safety and security at Atlanta Public Schools, said at a news conference Thursday said she has decided to reinstate impromptu safety drills so she can assess how well schools respond in a crisis. The district conducted surprise drills last year but has not done any this school year.

Still, she admits there are limitations.

“You will never be able to police your way” into safety, she said.

She said that schools are dependent as well on getting tips from parents and students.

The school in Florida was already concerned about Cruz.

He was known to those at the school as a student who liked weapons and posted to social media pictures of dead animals, and was expelled. He was caught after the shooting because someone recognized him from the in-school security camera footage.

Along with the 17 killed, 15 were injured.

Because Georgia investigators acted on an October tip, a Cherokee County high school avoided a potential tragedy.

Two 17-year-olds, Alfred Dupree and Victoria McCurley, had collected explosive materials and prepared a “kill list” targeting classmates and teachers at Etowah High School, investigators said.

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But one of the teens posted a threat on social media, Cherokee school leaders said. And a “hero” tipster alerted police, who quickly arrested the teens. After their arrests, Cherokee Sheriff Frank Reynolds said investigators had likely saved lives and prevented a “Columbine-type” incident.

Both remained without bond late Thursday in the Cherokee jail. Dupree is scheduled to be in court Feb. 22.

Thursday, school officials in Marietta and Atlanta felt the need to send letters to parents after the Florida shooting.

"We can and will do more," Marietta's superintendent Grant Rivera wrote. " ... I never want your child or mine to be involved in any such dynamics and, at the same time, we all must have confidence in one another that we have prepared and practiced to keep our schools safe."

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The same day Rivera sent his letter, Lanier High School’s principal sent one himself to parents alerting them that a student was found with a gun on campus. A school system spokeswoman said the student had not made threats.

AJ Cyrus and Rachael Henderson, both 17-year-old seniors, were still thinking Thursday about the Florida shooting as they left Roswell High School.

Henderson said she “absolutely” knows what to do if an intruder were to enter school. Cyrus said the school does drills to prepare at least once a month.

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“A lot of people think that high schoolers don’t know much about gun control or that middle schoolers don’t know much about gun control, but the fact of the matter is that we talk about it a lot in class,” Henderson said.

Crystal Maddox waited in front of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School for her two children, Kevin and Umeta, who are in sixth and eighth grade.

Maddox said hearing about the “terrifying” news made her wonder if school is safe for her children.

“It’s scary every day,” Maddox said. “You just got to hug them before they go out the door, because it might be the last time.”

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Staff writers Amanda C. Coyne, Becca J.G. Godwin, Vanessa McCray, Mitchell Northam, Eric Stirgus and Alexis Stevens contributed to this story.