Titusville school averted Parkland-style shooting, but details kept secret

Student had arsenal in bedroom, police say

Astronaut High School in Titusville.
Astronaut High School in Titusville.

TITUSVILLE, Fla. – Parents from Astronaut High School received a scary phone call Wednesday. 

After the usual "Good afternoon, War Eagle families!" greeting, the voice on the automated call informed them that the school had averted a near-shooting more than a year ago, ending in two students' expulsion from school and being "turned over to the juvenile justice system," News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

"Through strong relationships between our teacher and students, as well as the Titusville PD, detectives acted promptly which resulted in the arrest of two students who had allegedly conspired to harm our students," the robocall said.

What the call neglected to tell families was that the plot was almost missed by school officials when they first learned of it, and was only foiled by police after getting a tip from a teacher's spouse that a possible student attack was in the works. 

Police found that the two 17-year-old male students had the "clear ability" to carry out an attack on the school with an arsenal that one of them had hidden in his bedroom. According to police records obtained by Florida Today, the stockpile included .22-caliber rifles, a .380 pistol, loaded magazines, homemade axes, knives and machetes as well as improvised gas masks and bulletproof vests.

A police search of the boys' cellphones also found messages, laced with racial slurs and misogynistic comments, about school shootings and pictures from the Columbine High School massacre.

Based on the tip and the information they had gleaned, police concluded "an attack was going to be carried out," a year before Nikolas Cruz opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people. 

School leaders said they put off telling parents about the incident because "we were asked by law enforcement not to publicly disclose anything during their open investigation."

The near miss at Titusville raises more questions in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting about how such incidents are handled and communicated by schools and law enforcement officials, even when foiled. Parents from Astronaut High are asking why they weren't told about the plot for a year, why the plotters only received lenient consequences, and why school officials missed the clues that the students had posed a real threat.

According to Brevard School District officials, the Titusville school investigated a possible threat on Jan. 10, 2017, after an art teacher at the school and other students told administrators that one of the two students was threatening to shoot people.

According to a police report, the student told classmates that he was going to shoot his art teacher and hide explosives in the classroom. The report said he boasted students in the art room would "be killed first" and that he would use X-ACTO knives from the art room to stab them before turning a blade on himself. 

District spokesman Matt Reed said an initial internal investigation by the school, consisting of a few hours of questioning by the Astronaut guidance counselor and vice principal, cleared the student of any suspicions.

School officials are trained to ask questions "meant to reveal warning signs of mental illness, a desire to do harm or the means to hurt others," Reed said. The vice principal and counselor also interviewed some students who had overheard the threatening remarks. 

The guidance counselor at Astronaut, Monique Muldowney, told the art teacher via email that, after talking to the student, she did not believe the boy was threat. Vice Principal Jamie Russell told investigators "he was typical goofy kid who wants attention and he did not believe the threats were that serious."

The art teacher responded saying the student has easy access to sharp objects in the class, and "if he mentions anything of the sort again, I would like him out with no questions." 

School officials did not tell district staff or its assigned security resource officer about the incident, and did not search the student's locker or backpack. The student did not have a history of disciplinary problems, according to the school district.

“At the time, it was not protocol to notify police or the security resource officer. Today, it is,” Reed said, explaining that any perceived threat is now reported to police. 

By chance, Reed said, a few days later, the teacher who reported the incident mentioned it to her husband who worked at Parrish Medical Center, where a shooting had unfolded the year before, and he contacted the Titusville Police Department with the alleged threat.

"He felt the school had downplayed the potential seriousness of what took place," detective Sara Macskassy wrote in her report.

Neither the art teacher nor her husband would comment further.

The tip instigated a more thorough investigation by the Titusville Police Department, uncovering the disturbing messages and the arsenal. Records show, police found that the students had also discussed how to acquire more weapons and about what day was best to commit the attack in order to "increase the number of casualties." 

The student insisted the messages were in jest and that he never intended to carry out an attack. He was Baker Acted and placed on probation, according to court records.

Investigators did not find any weapons in the other boy's room. He told investigators that he took part in his classmate's messages "to protect himself, because he figured if [his classmate] really was a school shooter, by befriending him he would minimize his chance of being killed during an incident," the report said.

The second plotter was ordered to serve 50 hours of community service, write letters of apology, three 500-word essays, go through random drug screens and adhere to an 8 p.m. curfew. Both teens were expelled from Astronaut High and face arrest if they step on Brevard Public Schools property.

It was not clear how school officials and police came to such contrasting conclusions.

School board member Misty Belford, who represents Titusville, said she's very thankful the teacher spoke out.

Because they followed the protocol that was in place at the time, Reed said the employees from Astronaut who conducted the internal school investigation were not reprimanded. 

"They took the discoveries and arrests hard, and have continued to 'punish themselves,'" Reed said. 

"I don't know that I could fault them," Belford said, "but I think it certainly brought to light that we need to bring in the experts each and every time. Police are experts in that area, and school staff are not."

According to a news release from the school district, the investigation took "several weeks." The school district release also said: “There was never an active threat on campus … about which to notify parents.”

The Titusville Police Department has not responded to requests for comment about the investigation or why they advised school officials to keep details from the public.

Matters regarding student discipline are not usually broadcast to the public, Reed said. 

The school district and law enforcement also feared releasing the information would spawn copycat threats and stir panic in the community, Reed added.

In the weeks since Parkland, more than 600 copycat threats have been reported at schools across the country, according to Educator's School Safety Network and an analysis by the USA Today Network.

"You will trigger something when you put something out...," Reed said, "even if you tell them [parents] everything is OK."

Since the Valentine's Day shooting, Brevard police investigated reports of mysterious white powder, an Instagram post threatening to "shoot up" campus and a violent outburst from a student threatening to stab people — most of which turned out to be hoaxes but affected attendance nonetheless.

"It's kind of a Catch-22. You want to inform parents as much as you can, but you also don’t want them to be on edge constantly," Belford said. 

Principal Krista Miller said she briefed school staff about the incident at a staff meeting in April.