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Palm Beach Post (Florida)


The moment pre-K teacher Britt Downey was ushered into a room by the front offices of Palm Beach Central High School late Friday, hours of code-red lockdown drills kicked in.

Downey, who teaches students with autism at Loxahatchee Groves Elementary School, wound up under a desk in a room along with six teenage girls after shots were fired during the fourth quarter of a preseason football game between Palm Beach Central and Dwyer high schools. The girls were "hysterical," one was praying out loud, and they kept wanting to know and see what was happening.

"We have gone through these drills," said Downey, whose son, TJ, plays for Central. "I kept telling the girls, 'We need to stay quiet.' The girls kept wanting to get up and look out the door. I kept telling them, 'No, you have to stay here until they come get us.'"

The biggest signs of the shooting Saturday morning were a field littered with items ranging from footballs, to crutches, to cheerleader megaphones to a parking lot with about 50 cars, mostly belonging to people who fled the stadium. Hundreds of people — students, parents, players, coaches, administrators — instinctively ran for safety, many leaving behind their possessions, when two adult males were shot by an unknown assailant just outside the gates of the stadium near the northwest corner of the field. One victim remains in critical condition and authorities say nobody has been charged with the shooting.

Downey — who was at the game with her husband, Tim, and daughter, Alina, a freshman at Wellington High — never believed teachers should be armed, even after 17 people were killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland six months ago. But while Downey was crouched under that desk in a dark room and not knowing what was happening beyond those four walls, she started having a change of heart.

"I chose not to live in fear and I feel schools are trained to come up with ideas to keep them safe," she said. "When I'm looking at this situation, even if they did add metal detectors and different things going in, this happened in the parking lot. There always will be a loophole.

"I believed teachers don't need to carry weapons. As I was sitting in the room under the desk, the thought did cross my mind, I thought 'maybe I'm wrong. ... maybe I do need to have a weapon.' In that moment of feeling helpless and maybe someone is coming in to harm us, my thoughts changed.

"Maybe there should be weapons on campus. Before I didn't feel that way. There definitely needs to be protection."

Ivette Sepersaude drove her 17-year-old son, Jeffrey Torres, to campus Saturday to retrieve his car after she met her son on Forest Hill Boulevard, just west of the high school, after Torres fled the scene on Friday. Torres was getting into his car when he and a friend heard the shots. They got snarled in traffic and decided to run.

"First thing I told him was to stay calm," Sepersaude said. "I told him get in your car but then he called his dad and his dad's like, 'No, you need to run.' That's when he started to run."

It took about eight tries for Sepersaude's calls to finally go through. "I really started to panic because I couldn't get ahold of him," she said.

As he was trying to leave the lot in his car, Torres saw what he believed was one of the men who was shot. He ran in front of the car belonging to Torres' friend.

"His right leg was all bloodied," Torres said. "I think he was the other dude. They said one guy left by the vehicles and he got into the passenger seat of another car."

Now, Sepersaude is questioning whether she wants her son attending high school football games. The Broncos open the regular season Friday at Atlantic. Their first home game is Aug. 31.

"I told him if they don't have security, I'm not going to allow him to go to games," she said. "I'm sorry."

Torres was one of several people who lined up Saturday morning, waiting for a school district officer to arrive and unlock the gate so they could get their cars. The officer arrived around 8:30 a.m., unlocked the gates and sat in his vehicle in front of the school close to the yellow crime scene tape. Soon after, Palm Beach Central coaches arrived and started combing the bleachers for items left behind by people fleeing.

One of those was senior Chase Strelec, a member of the student government and Key Club president, who left behind his keys, wallet and phone. Strelec found his keys and wallet but not locate his phone. He also retrieved a friend's purse along with a set of keys and a phone.

Strelec was part of the chaos as fans attempted to escape the bleachers.

"I saw all the football players running, Dwyer, Palm Beach Central, the coaches even as well," he said. "I remember vividly just watching everybody jump and just, I don't want to say trample, but it gave the feeling of the urgency. A lot of my friends got bruises. One of my friends got pushed to the ground and thankfully there was another guy that said stop and made everybody calm and picked her up."

Jose Cortes, 39, was on the visitors' side of the field supporting his nephew, who plays for Dwyer. Cortes and his family ran east to the baseball field and hid in the dugout before another shot rang out and people started running again. He wound up being ushered out of the field on the south side, crossing Forest Hill Boulevard and being picked up at Okeeheelee Park.

For Downey, the reality of the situation hit her late Friday. Frantic to find their children, she and Tim finally realized they were safe when they were reunited in the parking lot. TJ was with his teammates and Alina had made it safe to a friend's house not far from the school.

"I learned my children are growing up in a completely different world," she said, "and they can take care of themselves."

[email protected] Twitter: @tomdangelo44

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August 19, 2018


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