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‘If anything happens in that school, I’m coming in that door’: Meet the unarmed volunteers patrolling Stoneman Douglas High School

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The moment David “Cobra” Clemente heard about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, he grabbed his red beret and red Guardian Angels jacket and raced over.

“I suited up and went straight to Parkland,” said Clemente, 59. “I had my guys meet me there.”

Clemente and two fellow members of the all-volunteer Broward County, Fla., Guardian Angels have put their lives on hold to conduct safety patrols at the school every day since the shooting — from about 6 a.m. until afternoon dismissal around 3 p.m.

Clemente, who has worked in the security field for decades, had been saving money over the years for a rainy day. Kids being killed not 10 minutes from his home was a storm.

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“If anything happens in that school, I’m coming in that door,” said Clemente, who does not carry a weapon, but at six feet tall and 300 pounds is an imposing figure. “Anybody who looks like they don’t belong there is going down on the floor, I’m taking them down. We watch everything. We’d protect these students with our lives.”

Clemente and the two other Guardian Angels — Romero “Black Cat” Davis and Mark “Yankee” Munic — spend their days walking or biking the grounds, escorting students to the building upon request, parents say, and helping traumatized teens feel safe.

Nobody tells them to be there, and they don’t get paid for it. Clemente and the other two angels show up each day because they think it’s the right thing to do, and they feel they’re making a difference.

Clemente said the reason their patrols are effective is because they are there day in and day out for the community, which is raw after 17 students and teachers were killed in the mass shooting about three months ago.

“We don’t just come in and do one patrol or two patrols and leave,” he said. “That’s not what we do.”

The Parkland parent community has embraced them, buying them a tent as a “command center,” and bringing them breakfast and lunch, often homemade, every day. There is also a jar where parents sometimes drop in cash to support them.

“They are there every day without an agenda except to protect the kids,” said Jon Faber, a father of two boys at the school. “They have a good grip on what’s going on. They are in communication with the parents and the kids, they know everything, all the gossip. They have their finger on the pulse of the school.”

Faber helped them get a permit for their tent and patrols. Sometimes students bring them homemade cookies or cards to say thanks. And they get hugs, lots of hugs.

The Guardian Angels work separately from local law enforcement officers who are detailed to the school for protection — one of whom was scorned by some in the Parkland community for staying outside the building during the February mass shooting rather than running in to help.

Clemente said he’s been at the school enough to know many of the students by name, and he gets high-fives and gratitude from students and parents every day.

The Guardian Angels is a nonprofit group of volunteers that started in 1979 — and had its heyday in the 1980s — doing safety patrols in New York City, working to move drug dealers and violence out of city neighborhoods. Now there are chapters that operate across the United States and in other countries. Clemente was a Guardian Angel in New York and started a Broward County chapter when he moved to South Florida five years ago. He had never patrolled Parkland before, because as a safe community, there was no need.

He and his fellow Guardian Angels are trained in protection and take weekly martial arts classes, he said.

In recent days, he said, he’s been getting calls from Guardian Angels in Texas who want advice about how to approach the Santa Fe high school where 10 people were killed and another 10 wounded last week in the most recent mass school shooting.

Clemente said he and the others plan to stay at Marjory Stoneman Douglas through the end of the year. If parents request that he come back in the fall, he’ll reassess.

“Do I have the means to do this for years? No, but I have the means to do it for five months,” said Clemente, who has five children, three of whom are grown and two of whom attend a nearby middle school. “I don’t worry where my next meal is coming from. I care about these kids being safe.”

Guardian Angel Black Cat runs a local gym and has largely asked his staff to take over operations there while he has detailed himself to the school. The third Guardian Angel, Yankee, temporarily gave up his job selling concessions at a ballpark, and Clemente found him a place where he can live for a few months rent-free.

Clemente said they’ve never had to respond to an incident at the school or break up a fight — and that’s exactly the point.

“With our presence alone, they can just tell,” Clemente said. “They won’t play around or talk back to the Guardian Angels. The Guardian Angels go into the belly of the beast in Chicago, Detroit, Trenton. Wherever we go, we clean it up.”

The trio was recognized by the city of Parkland with a certificate of appreciation from the mayor and city commission. They also got a certificate of appreciation from Broward County. Marjory Stoneman Douglas parents have organized an event next Thursday to honor the Guardian Angels.

“Thank you for being here for us when we needed you most,” Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky told them during a ceremony at city hall when she presented them with the certificate, according to a video taken at the event.

Clemente said that over  the past few months, he’s become so close to the community that it’s like he’s protecting his own family. He added that his service to the school is “something every single human being should do in the first place.”

“The kids have been through too much trauma,” he said. “If I bring a pinch of hope to these kids, I am doing my job.”

And, of course, keeping them safe is his No. 1 priority.

“The president has his Secret Service, and the Parkland students got their Guardian Angels,” he said.

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