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Teacher in Florida school shooting pleads for change: 'We're failing our children'

Melissa Falkowski, a teacher at the Florida high school where a gunman killed 17 people, described how she kept a group of students safe in a cramped closet.
/ Source: TODAY

A teacher who hid with students in a cramped closet at the Florida high school where a gunman killed 17 people on Wednesday described the panic she and the teens felt as the shooter stalked the hallways.

"The kids, some of them were hysterical from moment one, and so it was just trying to keep them calm and telling them that they're going to be OK and everything's going to be OK,'' Melissa Falkowski said on TODAY Thursday. "Just knowing that it doesn't really matter what I'm feeling in that moment, but they need to be calm and feel like they're going to be OK.

"That's my job. I just did my job."

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Falkowski, a journalism teacher at Majory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, was putting together the school newspaper with students on Wednesday afternoon when the fire alarm sounded.

As they headed out of the building, a security guard said there was a "code red" - an active shooter - and told them to head back to the classroom. Falkowski then guided 19 students into a small closet for about 30 minutes, as the sounds of sirens and helicopters began blaring outside.

By grim coincidence, just last month, teachers and administrators at the school received training about what to do in the event of an active shooter, Falkowski said.

While hiding, Falkowski, who has a 7-year-old son, broke down briefly after receiving a phone call from her panicked mother.

"In that moment I sort of lost my composure,'' she said. "I told her I was OK, but I had to get off the phone because she needed to know I was OK, but the kids needed me to be composed."

Shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Douglas who was expelled for disciplinary reasons, was armed with an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle and multiple magazines, authorities said. It's not clear if he had any other weapons.

He pulled the fire alarm ahead of the shooting in order to flush students out into the halls, police said. He was arrested in nearby Coral Springs after initially blending in with the fleeing students to escape the scene, authorities said.

Following the 18th school shooting this year, Falkowski pleaded for change, saying she and her students had become "the latest statistic" in another massacre.

"I've seen this on TV, we all have, just shooting after shooting, and the same thing is said, 'It's not time to talk about gun control, it's not the time, it's time to pray for the families,''' she said. "And I just think that hasn't gotten us anywhere.

"As a society, as Americans, we're failing our children, we're not keeping them safe, and Congress is failing us, and the government is failing us, and something has to be done."

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.